Fire Graph

Graph credit Rick Thoman, Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy

Researchers out of the University of Alaska Fairbanks have been coordinating talks with fire management teams and climate scientists to better address the potential risk for wildfires in the state of Alaska.

The discussion is twofold, according to Scott Rupp, deputy director of the International Arctic Research Center, with one project focused on the metrics on what fire behavior may look like on any given day using global climate models.

“And then the other project is also focused on using these global climate models,” Rupp said, “but also doing something called ‘regional climate modeling’ where we’re taking essentially a weather forecasting model but using it to downscale historic information, historic observation on a finer scale and on a daily time step to provide information that the fire scientists use on a daily basis to provide their forecast.”

Rupp, a boreal forest ecologist, has been doing research on wildfires with people from the Division of Forestry and the Alaska Fire Service for almost 20 years, so engaging various parties on the topic was easy.

The term used for this type of project is “coproduction of knowledge” according to Jane Wolken, another boreal forest ecologist who participated in discussions with the Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service, the Alaska Division of Forestry and the scientists from  UAF.

Wolken is the program coordinator with the Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center, housed out of the University of Alaska Fairbanks with the International Arctic Research Center. She published a blog with Scientific American on Friday, addressing the work that’s taken place thus far.

Alaska is so big that it’s difficult to get higher resolution data on fire behavior, according to Wolken, but scientists are attempting to model what data they have with fire management teams joining the conversation to discuss which data would be most important for their work.

What Alaska lacks, as opposed to the Lower 48, according to Rupp, is “gridded daily data at a resolution that’s useful.”

“So — the global climate models — if you think of a grid of pixels, those pixels cover 1-21/2 degrees which are a really big chunk of landscape,” he explained. “So, for a global climate model, all of Alaska might be covered by 40 or 50 squares.”

If fire management and fuel service teams are attempting to make a decision specific to the Fairbanks North Star Borough, one of these pixels would be larger than the borough and the data field would be broader.

So, for instance, Rupp said, data on precipitation in Two Rivers is different from Chena Ridge. The downscaling he discussed would fine detail information about topography, match it up with physics of how topography affects weather and take information from the global models to pull out further details based on the topography.

This way, instead of 40-50 pixels for the entire state, an updated model could contain at least a million, according to Rupp.

Fire season has already begun in Alaska this year, but thus far, the scientists and fire management teams have discussed future models having more detail regarding temperature and precipitation, Wolken said, “and they’ve been exploring looking at the factors leading to lightning events and also variables such as wind and relative humidity come into play.”

Some of the discussion has also revolved around the contributing factors of climate change in the state developing a longer wildfire season.

“The wildfire season is starting earlier. We have a longer snow-free period, so spring is now arriving earlier,” Wolken said.

In the past 10 years, Wolken said the state has seen three of its largest wildfires and that wildfire season has extended, starting in April rather than May.

Rupp said that while overall there’s been an uptick in precipitation during Alaska summers, “we’re still a pretty dry, arid place.”

He says a good rule of thumb is for every degree temperature increase, you need about a 10% precipitation increase.

“That sort of offsets the extra drying effect,” Rupp said.

Wolken initially wrote the article published in the Observations section of Scientific American while taking a course on science writing. One of her goals, she said, was to raise awareness of wildfire risk in Alaska.

Wolken describes many communities in the state as “living at the edge of the urban wildfire interface.”

“So Fairbanks is a city, but then a lot of us live outside the city in the hills, technically within the bounds of Fairbanks,” she said.

These hills, as Fairbanksans will know, are surrounded by forest. Should a wildfire occur in one of these areas, Wolken said, the impact to residents could be greater than if it occurred in the wilderness elsewhere.

The Oregon Lakes Fire in Delta Junction has spread to 31,850 acres. Rupp cautions, however, that June is still too early in the year to know how active the fire season will be.

“I would define a more active fire year, a big fire year, as something that’s a million acres or more,” Rupp said. “At this point in the year, it’s really hard to tell.”

Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7572.