GeoLog

North America

Imaggeo on Mondays: The Henry Mountains, living textbook of modern geomorphology

Imaggeo on Mondays: The Henry Mountains, living textbook of modern geomorphology

In 1877, the United States Geological Survey published a report “On the Geology of the Henry Mountains”, on the small range of peaks in southern Utah, pictured here. Up to that point, little scientific study had been made of the unassuming peaks, but the author of the report, one Grove Karl Gilbert, not only detailed the structure and mineralogy of the landscape, but in doing so also laid the foundations for much of modern geomorphology.

While beautiful, the range is isolated and of limited economic value; Gilbert himself notably wrote that “No one but a geologist will ever profitably seek out the Henry Mountains”, while the name given to the range by the Navajo Nation is Dził Bizhiʼ Ádiní, literally meaning “mountain whose name is missing”. And yet, the wildness of the range is sufficient attraction for some!

by Robert Emberson

Robert Emberson is a Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and a science writer when possible. He can be contacted either on Twitter (@RobertEmberson) or via his website (www.robertemberson.com)

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

Record-setting forest fires in 2017 – what is to blame?

Record-setting forest fires in 2017 – what is to blame?

Forest fires have once again seized the public consciousness in both Europe and North America. Extreme drought and temperatures contributed to a tinderbox in many forests, and have led to deadly fires across Europe and record-breaking, highly disruptive fires in the USA and Canada, from where I’m currently writing.

A simple way to understand fire is by thinking about the fire triangle – the three pieces that need to combine to produce fire: heat, oxygen, and fuel. While the concept of the fire triangle offers simple insights into the cause of a fire, each of the three factors are subject to a number of controls.

The availability of fuel in particular is affected by a whole range of influences, from tree species variations, to the impact of pests, to the prior history of wildfires. In many cases there will be a multitude of reasons for both the rate that a given fire spreads, and the spatial extent to which it burns. The extensive media coverage of this year’s record-breaking fire season provides a useful opportunity to explore some of these factors, and how they might have contributed to the fires that we’re seeing this year.

Multi-tiered fires

Not all forest fires are equal. The forestry service in British Columbia defines 6 different levels of fire, ranging from slow burning of peat below the surface of a forest (a ground fire), through the burning of scrub and ground level debris (surface fire), to far harder to control conflagrations that consume the canopy of the trees (a crown fire).

Each type of fire consumes fuel from different levels of the forest, and a transition from a lower to higher level requires at a minimum that there is enough flammable material in the upper layers of the forest. As such, the history of fire in a given stand of woodland will have a significant effect on the potential for future fires; a prior surface fire could remove the under-brush and limit the future fire risk.

Many older trees in a forest can have fire scars from previous, smaller fires that have not burnt them entirely, demonstrating that not all fires make the transition to crown fires. In the US, the largest 2-3% of wildfires contribute 95% of the total area burned annually, and these are generally the largest crown fires. For these large fires, the conditions must be optimal to reach the canopy, but once they make this transition they can be very difficult to stop.

Although the largest fires require a specific set of conditions, the transition to large fire can lag for a long time behind the initial trigger of a fire:

“Once ignited, decaying logs are capable of smouldering for weeks, or even months, waiting the time when prevailing conditions (hot, windy, and dry) are conducive for expansion into a full-blown forest fire,” write Logan & Powell in 2001.

The initial trigger in natural settings for the fire is generally lightning, or in rare cases the intense heat from lava flows. However, a recent study has shown that in the continental US, 84% of fires are started by humans. This can range from discarded cigarettes to prescribed fires that have raged out of control.

So, we now have a simplified understanding of the requirements for a fire, but perhaps the more important question remains: why do they spread?

What fans the flames?

So what are the processes that control the strength and spread of a fire? Certain aspects, like climatic conditions, tend to set a long-term propensity for wildfire, while other short term effects define the local, immediate cause for a fire.

The long-term role of climate is quite diverse. Flannigan and co-authors, in their 2008 paper, summarise the importance of temperature in setting the conditions for fire:

“First, warmer temperatures will increase evapotranspiration, as the ability for the atmosphere to hold moisture increases rapidly with higher temperatures… (Roulet et al. 1992) and decreasing fuel moisture unless there are significant increases in precipitation. Second, warmer temperatures translate into more lightning activity that generally leads to increased ignitions (Price and Rind 1994). Third, warmer temperatures maylead to a lengthening of the fire season (Westerling et al. 2006).”

The importance of temperature at a global scale is demonstrated by studies suggesting that fire outbreaks have systematically increased since the last glacial maximum 21,000 years ago, when average temperatures were several degrees colder.

So once the climatic conditions set a long term likelihood for a fire to break out, as well as the distribution of tree species (and therefore the amount of fuel), short term disturbances can act to further increase susceptibility. We can divide these more immediate factors into weather, ecological, and human influences.

Unsurprisingly, weather conditions that bring hot, dry weather with the chance of thunderstorms will be highly likely to drive fires. A number of studies have shown that this kind of weather is often linked to persistent high pressure systems in the atmosphere, which push away rainfall, and can last for weeks at a time.

This kind of atmospheric conditions can often be linked to longer term weather patterns, in particular El Niño, and the effects can be long-lived. For example, El Niño brings warm, dry weather to the North-western part of North America, driving increased fire. In the South-west, El Niño brings wetter weather, but the increased vegetation growth provides a larger amount of fuel that can then burn in subsequent drier conditions.

Caption: Healthy pines mix with red, decaying trees afflicted with pine beetle infestation in Jasper National Park, Canada (Aug 2017). Credit: Robert Emberson

The growth of plants is just one way that the forest ecosystem can affect the availability of fuel for fire. Many trees are affected by pests. The classic example is the pine beetle, which can kill so many trees that whole swathes of pine forest are left characteristically red as they decay in the aftermath of an infestation. While some studies have shown that this can reduce the chance of a crown fire (since less fuel is available in the canopy), the dead and decaying trees provide a source of drier fuel at ground level that is a concern in many regions.

Elsewhere, we can see cases where trees encourage fire. Eucalyptus trees contain oil that burns strongly; the fire that this produces is suggested to remove the other tree species competing with the Eucalyptus. A strange method, but no doubt effective! The Eucalyptus, introduced to Portugal by humans in the 18th century, has been linked to many of the deadly fires that occurred there this summer. The lodgepole pine, too, has pinecones that require the heat of fire to open and release their seeds.
As such, fire is a natural part of the ecosystem, and in most areas of the boreal forest fire management is limited, with attempts at suppression only made where human settlement is at risk.

Where humans do step in, their actions can have an important role in setting the overall susceptibility to fire. Creating ‘fire breaks’ by felling or controlled burning of woodland in the path of a fire removes fuel and limits the growth of a fire, and a program of controlled burns is an important part of forest management to limit the potential for future fire by clearing scrub vegetation at the surface.

On the other hand, continual suppression of fires can lead to build up of fuel – which can then form a significantly more dangerous fire on a long term basis.

Ken Lertzman, Professor of Forest Ecology and Management at Simon Fraser University, told me that in general, control mechanisms are only useful for smaller surface fires; once the fire reaches the canopy, fire suppression is extremely difficult.

“It’s a combination of a statistical and philosophical problem”, he says. Fire control is expensive, so unless it’s financed by profits from felled lumber, cost benefit analysis is necessary, based in part on the statistical probability of a huge fire breaking out in a given location. Philosophically, though, “management forest stand structure at the boundary conditions [between surface and canopy fires] may be able to keep small fires becoming extreme.” and thus perhaps it’s worth trying to use control mechanisms even if giant canopy fires would ignore them, just to avoid that transition to the canopy.

As with most natural systems, the factors discussed above don’t necessarily act independently. Many can amplify other effects. For example, the geographical range of pine beetle outbreaks could increase under a warming climate. At a smaller scale, giant fires can create their own weather patterns, acting to dry out the surrounding forest even before it ignites. So, is the greater incidence of fire this year down to this kind of combination of factors?

What’s happening in 2017?

The sun at 10.15 in the morning in Chilliwack, BC, 3rd August 2017 – more than 50km from the nearest fire. Credit: Megan Reich.

The summer of 2017 has been brutal for wildfire in many locations. Europe has been hit hard with more fires in one day in Portugal than any previous on record. In British Columbia (BC), the largest single fire on record is currently burning, contributing to the largest total area burned in historical record. The fires released so much particulate matter and haze that the sun was obscured in large parts of BC.

According to Professor Lertzman, in British Columbia at least, this is “a fire year different in degree, not in kind”. The same processes are at play as always, but in overdrive. An early spring thaw combined with a long, hot and dry summer created the ideal antecedent conditions for fire.

Linking individual intense ‘fire years’ to long term climate change in challenging, but it is likely that these kind of conditions would be more likely to occur in a world influenced by anthropogenic climate change. Years like this one, which are clearly exceptional compared to the long term trend for fire, might begin to occur more often; every 5-10 years rather than every 30-50, for example.

In the short term, fire damage and suppression is expensive, both financially and in terms of lives affected. Smoke is a health risk to wide areas in the face of such intense fire, but ecological damage can be more difficult for humans to see.

Mature forest is a different niche for organisms to fill in comparison to fresh surfaces stripped bare by fire. While each ecosystem has its place in the natural forest, an increased prevalence of fire reduces the mature forest available for the species that prefer that ecological zone. These can range from recognisable mammal species such as bears, deer and caribou, to less well-known but still important canopy lichen species, says Professor Lertzman.

While this year’s fire season is beginning to ease off, it is clear that the range of factors, both natural and those driven by humans, will continue to play a role in years to come. More build-up of infrastructure in developed countries puts more human settlement at risk, so a clear understanding of how fire interacts with the climate, weather, and forest management strategies will be vital to allow us to live alongside fire in the future with fewer problems.

By Robert Emberson, freelance science writer

 

Further reading and resources

GeoSciences Column: When could humans last walk, on land, between Asia & America?

GeoSciences Column: When could humans last walk, on land, between Asia & America?

Though now submerged under 53 m of ocean waters, there once was a land bridge which connected North America with Asia, allowing the passage of species, including early humans, between the two continents. A new study, published in the EGU’s open access journal Climate of the Past, explores when the land bridge was last inundated, cutting off the link between the two landmasses.

The Bering Strait, a narrow passage of water, connects the Arctic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. Located slightly south of the Arctic Circle, the shallow, navigable, 85 km wide waterway is all that separates the U.S.A and Russia. There is strong evidence to suggest that, not so long ago, it was possible to walk between the two*.

The Paleolithic people of the Americas. Evidence suggests big-animal hunters crossed the Bering Strait from Eurasia into North America over a land and ice bridge (Beringia). Image: The American Indian by Clark Wissler (1917). Distributed via Wikipedia.

In fact, though the subject of a heated, ongoing debate, this route is thought to be one of the ones taken by some of the very first human colonisers of the Americas, some 16, 500 years ago.

Finding out exactly when the Bering Strait last flooded is important, not only because it ends the last period when animals and humans could cross between North America and northeast Asia, but because an open strait affects the two oceans it connects. It plays a role in how waters move around in the Arctic Ocean, as well as how masses of water with different properties (oxygen and/or salt concentrations and temperatures, for example) arrange themselves. The implications are significant: currently, the heat transported to Arctic waters (from the Pacific) via the Bering Strait determines the extend of Arctic sea ice.

As a result, a closed strait has global climatic implications, which adds to the importance of knowing when the strait last flooded.

The new study uses geophysical data which allowed the team of authors to create a 3D image of the Herald Canyon (within the Bering Strait). They combined this map with data acquired from cylindrical sections of sediment drilled from the ocean floor to build a picture of how the environments in the region of the Bering Strait changed towards the end of the last glaciation (at the start of a time known as the Holocene, approximately 11,700 years ago, when the last ‘ice age’ ended).

At depths between 412 and 400 cm in the cores, the sediment experiences changes in physical and chemical properties which, the researchers argue, represent the time when Pacific water began to enter the Arctic Ocean via the Bearing strait. Radiocarbon dating puts the age of this transition at approximately 11, 000 years ago.

Above this transition in the core, the scientist identified high concentrations of biogenic silica (which comes from the skeletons of marine creatures such as diatoms – a type of algae – and sponges); a characteristic signature of Pacific waters. Elevated concentrations of a carbon isotope called delta carbon thirteen (δ 13Corg), are further evidence that marine waters were present at that time, as they indicate larger contributions from phytoplankton.

The sediments below the transition consist of sandy clayey silts, which the team interpret as deposited near to the shore with the input of terrestrial materials. Above the transition, the sediments become olive-grey in colour and are exclusively made up of silt. Combined with the evidence from the chemical data, the team argue, these sediments were deposited in an exclusively marine environment, likely influenced by Pacific waters.

Combining geophysical data with information gathered from sediment cores allowed the researchers to establish when the Bering Strait closed. This image is a 3-D view of the bathymetry of Herald Canyon and the chirp sonar profiles acquired along crossing transects. Locations of the coring sites are shown by black bars. Figure taken from M. Jakobsson et al. 2017.

The timing of the sudden flooding of the Bering Strait and the submergence of the land bridge which connected North America with northeast Asia, coincides with a period of time characterised by Meltwater pulse 1B, when sea levels were rising rapidly as a result of meltwater input to the oceans from the collapse of continental ice sheets at the end of the last glaciation.

The reestablishment of the Pacific-Arctic water connection, say the researchers, would have had a big impact on the circulation of water in the Arctic Ocean, sea ice, ecology and potentially the Earth’s climate during the early Holocene. Know that we are more certain about when the Bering Strait reflooded, scientist can work towards quantifying these impacts in more detail.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

 

*Authors’s note: In fact, during the winter months, when sea ice covers the strait, it is still possible to cross from Russia to the U.S.A (and vice versa) on foot. Eight people have accomplished the feat throughout the 20th Century. Links to some recent attempts can be found at the end of this post.

References and resources:

Jakobsson, M., Pearce, C., Cronin, T. M., Backman, J., Anderson, L. G., Barrientos, N., Björk, G., Coxall, H., de Boer, A., Mayer, L. A., Mörth, C.-M., Nilsson, J., Rattray, J. E., Stranne, C., Semiletov, I., and O’Regan, M.: Post-glacial flooding of the Bering Land Bridge dated to 11 cal ka BP based on new geophysical and sediment records, Clim. Past, 13, 991-1005, https://doi.org/10.5194/cp-13-991-2017, 2017.

Barton, C. M., Clark, G. A., Yesner, D. R., and Pearson, G. A.: The Settlement of the American Continents: A Multidisciplinay Approach to Human Biogeography, The University of Arizona Press, Tuscon, 2004.

Goebel, T., Waters, M. R., and Rourke, D. H.: The Late Pleistocene Dispersal of Modern Humans in the Americas, Science, 319,1497–1502, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1153569, 2008

Epic explorer crossed frozen sea (BBC): http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/humber/4872348.stm

Korean team crossed Bering Strait (The Korean Herald): http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20120301000341