Research Reveals Alaskan Forests’ Carbon Richness

The US Geological Survey (USGS), the US Forest Service and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks have jointly concluded an archetype study that reveals the carbon richness of Alaskan forests. The new research indicates that the forests, wetlands and permafrost of Alaska are home to much bigger carbon deposits as compared to lower 48 states.

Interior’s Deputy Secretary Mike Connor stated that this targeted evaluation has provided an important information level that will serve as a base for measurements to gain improved insight into the properties of carbon present in Alaskan ecosystems. While 18% area of the US is covered by Alaskan land, about 53% of the total carbon reserve rests in Alaska.

USGS Associate Director for Climate and Land Use Change, Virginia Burkett, revealed that carbon deposits that are seized in ecosystems that fall under the temperature zone are at lower risk as compared to those carbon stocks that are on high latitude ecosystems. Burkett explained the reason for the difference in vulnerability as the boreal and arctic regions being more susceptible to quicker rise in average temperatures during the remaining century.

“This new assessment specifically reveals how soil carbon losses in Alaska are amplified by wildfires, which have increased in size and frequency with the warming Arctic climate”, said Burkett. Biological carbon storage, which is also called carbon sequestration, is a process involving the eradication of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and its accumulation as carbon deposits in vegetation, soils and sediment.

USGS Scientist and Professor of Land Ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, A. David McGuire, clarified that huge volumes of soil and biomass carbon have got accumulated at Alaska over a period of time owing the low temperatures in the region. However, the point of concern is the joint impact of rising temperatures, permafrost defrosting, more recurrent wildfires and stream flow modifications on carbon accumulation and greenhouse gas exchange.

According to a story published on the topic by Newsminer, “Now, though, a major and surprising new report from the U.S. Geological Survey would appear to undercut, significantly, this worry, at least for one key northern region: the U.S. state of Alaska. In the process, the document raises deep questions about what the true carbon consequences of Alaska’s ongoing warming will be – a mystery whose solution may also implicate still greater carbon stores across Arctic regions in Canada and Siberia.”

To better understand the issues at stake here, it may help to have a quick refresher on some concepts that climate scientists live and breathe but that the rest of us do not. Researchers say that a particular region – in this case, Alaska – is a carbon “sink” if its lands, plants, waters and so on are pulling more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere than they are putting into it. And conversely, researchers say that an area is a carbon “source” if the net result of everything happening there, across often very diverse types of landscapes and ecosystems, leads to more carbon ending up in the atmosphere.

The reason is that while Alaska’s boreal forest region is expected to see bigger and more intense wildfires that send up large amounts of carbon stored in trees and soils – and while permafrost will certainly degrade to some extent – other parts of Alaska are simultaneously expected to green up. There will be more carbon dioxide in the air (plants dig it), and less really cold weather, among other factors, leading to a phenomenon that has often been dubbed “Arctic greening.”

“A new study has found that climate change is increasing the carbon storage in Alaska’s forests, which is making its impacts even worse than scientists anticipated. The US Geological Survey (USGS) recently announced that the uptick in blazes has been destroying carbon-rich boreal forests, tundra and permafrost, which are the main buffers against climate change in the state,” according to a news report published by Weather.

“The cold temperatures of Alaska have led over time to the storage of vast quantities of soil and biomass carbon,” USGS scientist A. David McGuire told Phys.org. “A major concern for this region is how interactions among warming temperatures, permafrost thaw, more frequent wildfires, and changes in stream flow will affect carbon storage and greenhouse gas exchange.”

In an average year, wildfires in Alaska burn twice the area devoured by wildfires in all of the lower 48 states and emit more greenhouse gases than all those other fires combined, according to the study. These types of fire across the northern US and Canada were projected to increase over the coming decades as the climate continues to get warmer.

The Guardian. “It has tremendous implications for the carbon that is locked up in Alaska soils and vegetation. Our scientists found that the balance of carbon storage versus release in Alaska was strongly linked with wildfires. In years where there was high wildfire activity the net carbon balance declined dramatically, and then it would rebuild in the absence of fire.”

A report published in Space Daily said, “In comparison to the lower 48 states, Alaskan forests, wetlands and permafrost contain larger stores of carbon, according to the first-of-its-kind assessment recently completed by the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.”

“This benchmark assessment establishes significant baseline information to better understand carbon dynamics in Alaskan ecosystems,” said Interior’s Deputy Secretary Mike Connor. “It provides the latest example of how Interior is applying science to our nation’s most complex resource management challenges. Nowhere is this more critical than in Alaska with its vast and diverse geography and its heightened vulnerability to climate change.”

“The cold temperatures of Alaska have led over time to the storage of vast quantities of soil and biomass carbon,” said A. David McGuire, USGS scientist and professor of land ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “A major concern for this region is how interactions among warming temperatures, permafrost thaw, more frequent wildfires, and changes in stream flow will affect carbon storage and greenhouse gas exchange.”

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