We live in a time of extremes. Our daily news cycle is replete with extreme language, extreme corruption, and extreme threats. It’s easy to become numb, a self-defense mechanism, and equate these extremes with normal. I sometimes find myself falling victim to this mentality, and quickly snap out of it.
Before this barrage of daily extremes I had a much more benign, Earthly connection with the concept of ‘extreme’. I’m a scientist who studies our northern forests, boreal forests. I’ve always been fascinated by the ability of boreal trees, animals, and other organisms to thrive in such extreme conditions. After flying north and setting foot in a dense, mossy boreal forest, the extreme is palpable.
It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly evokes ‘extreme’ in a boreal forest. But these are lands of long summer days and long winter nights; bitterly cold winters and increasingly hot summers; small trees but deep soil. Along with arctic tundra, boreal forests warm and cool faster than any biome on Earth during times of global change. Boreal trees have been forced to migrate at astonishingly fast rates in the past and survive in a myriad of environmental conditions. These are hearty trees. They have been put to the test of extremes and survived. I only hope we humans can be as resilient.
Most pertinent to our current crisis is the potential for boreal forests to amplify climate warming. Despite being cold and wet for much of the year, these forests burn intensely in hot and dry summers. And summers are indeed becoming hotter and drier. Witness 2014 in the Northwest Territories, Canada, 2015 across Alaska, 2016 in Fort McMurray, Alberta (the costliest natural disaster in Canada’s history), and this past summer with fires ablaze from Alaska to Siberia. Even Greenland now appears to burn with regularity. Although most of us live far away from these fires, the massive smoke plumes often reach major population centers, and carbon emitted to the atmosphere affects everyone on the planet.
As a scientist dealing with climate change, my primary duty to society is to report what I know, and second to shout about our need to reduce fossil fuel emissions. But that doesn’t seem like enough. How can I use my science to inform solutions?
I’ve caught myself feeling jealous of my colleagues working on tropical forests, who have an answer to this. Solutions in the tropics involve human actions and policies to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation (not to say that initiating and enforcing these policies is easy). For those of us working in the Arctic, we generally throw up our hands when asked about direct mitigation actions or even limiting Arctic feedbacks to climate change, including melting sea ice and glaciers, thawing permafrost, and raging wildfires (fires, in a cruel twist, also deposit black carbon on ice, thereby accelerating melt, and destabilize underlying permafrost). We must cut our global greenhouse gas emissions, but otherwise there is little the Arctic science community can offer in the way of solutions. Or at least that has been the conventional wisdom.
Yet to embark down a path of rapid decarbonization, we need new solutions. We need creative solutions. One of those may indeed be related to my muse, the vast swaths of boreal forests across Alaska, Canada, and Siberia. And it may be a solution we already know how to do well: wildfire management. Fire managers are good at what they do, modifying the behavior of fires on the landscape. What if they had additional resources to limit carbon emissions from fires? I’ve been fortunate to work with colleagues at the Union of Concerned Scientists on this question. Preliminary results are promising, suggesting wildfire management should be considered as a cost-effective way to keep carbon in the ground and limit positive feedbacks to warming. After a decade of studying these forests, and with the help of UCS, I have finally found a way to use my science for a solution. And it’s exhilarating.
Notes from the field
As my UCS colleagues and I drove up Murphy Dome, a small mountain just outside of Fairbanks, the forest appeared peaceful and quiet, covered in a fresh coat of snow. It was hard to tell this forest just burned. Eating local salmon at a colleagues’ house that overlooked the surrounding valley, it was hard to believe that just a few months ago the sky was blanketed with flames and smoke from yet another raging wildfire; hard to believe that residents throughout the area were living in a state of anxiety, ever-ready to evacuate. This year was a big one, an extreme fire year in Alaska by historical measures, but that’s becoming more common. Such is the way of life today in Alaska, and across the rapidly warming North.
The primary goal for the trip was to present our idea of carbon-focused management to the fire management community. This can be a tricky issue to navigate. Resources are stretched thin and Alaska’s managers depend on support from the lower 48 during large fire years such as 2019. The last thing they need is another demand. But our work requires thinking about management within a different paradigm, a climate mitigation paradigm, and within an augmented funding structure. We received healthy skepticism, but also generally open arms and open minds, with plenty of opportunities for sharing ideas and data. We made great strides, and we were invited back.
The final leg of my trip involved visiting tundra in southwestern Alaska, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, that burned during the massive fire year of 2015. This past summer broke temperature records all across the state, and the permafrost underlying this tundra is rapidly thawing. So much so that much of the previous tundra became open water during the summer, a result of a process called ‘thermokarst’ whereby ice-rich permafrost thaws and form ponds, in the process emitting even more CO2 to the atmosphere. This was also the case for Native villages in the area, which are literally sinking into the thawing ground. A day trip to the village of Nunapitchuk revealed a community in peril; one whose every structure is sinking. Residents will be voting to relocate their town to higher, more stable ground, but this will require as-of-yet unsecured funding. It was a stark reminder that climate change is having profound impacts on northern communities, on US communities, today. We will be seeing much more of this in the coming years.
Flying back to Boston was an exercise in regaining my optimism. But optimistic I truly am, or I wouldn’t do what I do. I’m optimistic – no, I’m certain – that our society will one day look back upon this tumultuous time of extremes and appreciate our growing pains. We stumbled, we faltered, we desperately clung on to ‘fairytales of eternal economic growth’; but we ultimately did what was best for the planet and the survival of our wonderful, ingenious, and wildly imperfect species. To realize that future, however, we need big, bold, and creative solutions. We no longer have the luxury of only reducing fossil fuel use. We need to assess every option, every way in which humans interact with the environment, every scientific field and every profession, to develop our portfolio of solutions. And we need the solutions fast.