Forest succession and climate variability interacted to control fire activity over the last four centuries in an Alaskan boreal landscape

  • Tyler J. HoeckerEmail author
  • Philip E. Higuera
Research Article



The boreal forest is globally important for its influence on Earth’s energy balance, and its sensitivity to climate change. Ecosystem functioning in boreal forests is shaped by fire activity, so anticipating the impacts of climate change requires understanding the precedence for, and consequences of, climatically induced changes in fire regimes. Long-term records of climate, fire, and vegetation are critical for gaining this understanding.


We investigated the relative importance of climate and landscape flammability as drivers of fire activity in boreal forests by developing high-resolution records of fire history, and characterizing their centennial-scale relationships to temperature and vegetation dynamics.


We reconstructed the timing of fire activity in interior Alaska, USA, using seven lake-sediment charcoal records spanning CE 1550–2015. We developed individual and composite records of fire activity, and used correlations and qualitative comparisons to assess relationships with existing records of vegetation and climate.


Our records document a dynamic relationship between climate and fire. Fire activity and temperature showed stronger coupling after ca. 1900 than in the preceding 350 yr. Biomass burning and temperatures increased concurrently during the second half of the twentieth century, to their highest point in the record. Fire activity followed pulses in black spruce establishment.


Fire activity was facilitated by warm temperatures and landscape-scale dominance of highly flammable mature black spruce, with a notable increase in temperature and fire activity during the twenty-first century. The results suggest that widespread burning at landscape scales is controlled by a combination of climate and vegetation dynamics that together drive flammability.


Boreal forest Fire Paleoecology Multi-proxy Climate Black spruce 



The authors gratefully acknowledge field assistance from Alex Shapiro and Meghan Foard, and laboratory assistance from Meghan Foard, Cassidy Robertson, Camie Westfall, Kerry Sullivan, and Andrew Neumann. We thank Paul Duffy for sharing information on the tree-ring dataset, Tom Brown for assistance with radiocarbon analysis, and Ryan Kelly for help with data analysis and comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. The manuscript was improved by comments from Ashley Ballantyne, Solomon Dobrowski, Carl Seielstad, and two anonymous reviewers. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation through grant EF-1241846/1606351 to P. E. Higuera, and a University of Minnesota LacCore visiting Graduate Student Award to T. J. Hoecker. All data and code used in this manuscript are publicly available via the Dryad Digital Repository, or upon request to the authors.

Supplementary material

10980_2018_766_MOESM1_ESM.docx (11.5 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 11732 kb)


  1. Ali AA, Carcaillet C, Bergeron Y (2009) Long-term fire frequency variability in the eastern Canadian boreal forest: the influences of climate vs. local factors. Glob Change Biol 15:1230–1241CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Balshi MS, McGuire AD, Duffy P, Flannigan M, Walsh J, Melillo J (2009) Assessing the response of area burned to changing climate in western boreal North America using a Multivariate Adaptive Regression Splines (MARS) approach. Glob Change Biol 15:578–600CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Barrett K, McGuire AD, Hoy EE, Kasischke ES (2011) Potential shifts in dominant forest cover in interior Alaska driven by variations in fire severity. Ecol Appl 21:2380–2396CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Binford MW (1990) Calculation and uncertainty analysis of 210Pb dates for PIRLA project lake sediment cores. J Paleolimnol 3:253–267CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Blaauw M, Christen JA (2011) Flexible paleoclimate age-depth models using an autoregressive gamma process. Bayesian Anal 6:457–474Google Scholar
  6. Boggs K, Flagstad T, Boucher T, Kuo T, Fehringer D, Guyer S, Aisu M (2016) Vegetation map and classification: Northern, western and interior Alaska, 2nd edn. Anchorage, AKGoogle Scholar
  7. Bonan GB, Pollard D, Thompson SL (1992) Effects of boreal forest vegetation on global climate. Nature 359:716–718CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bond-Lamberty B, Peckham SD, Ahl DE, Gower ST (2007) Fire as the dominant driver of central Canadian boreal forest carbon balance. Nature 450:89CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Brown CD, Johnstone JF (2012) Once burned, twice shy: repeat fires reduce seed availability and alter substrate constraints on Picea mariana regeneration. For Ecol Manage 266:34–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Calder WJ, Parker D, Stopka CJ, Jiménez-Moreno G, Shuman BN (2015) Medieval warming initiated exceptionally large wildfire outbreaks in the Rocky Mountains. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 112:13261–13266CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Chapin FS, Callaghan TV, Bergeron Y, Fukuda M, Johnstone JF, Juday G, Zimov SA (2004) Global change and the boreal forest: thresholds, shifting states or gradual change? Ambio 33:361–365CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Chapin FS, McGuire AD, Randerson J, Pielke R, Baldocchi D, Hobbie SE, Roulet N, Eugster W, Kasischke E, Rastetter EB, Zimov SA, Running SW (2000) Arctic and boreal ecosystems of western North America as components of the climate system. Glob Change Biol 6:211–223CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Clark JS, Royall PD (1996) Local and regional sediment charcoal evidence for fire regimes in presettlement north-eastern North America. J Ecol 84:365CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Dash CB, Fraterrigo JM, Hu FS (2016) Land cover influences boreal-forest fire responses to climate change: geospatial analysis of historical records from Alaska. Landscape Ecol 31:1781–1793CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Duffy PA (2006) Interactions among climate, fire, and vegetation in the Alaskan boreal forest. PhD Dissertation, Department of Forest Sciences, University of Alaska, FairbanksGoogle Scholar
  16. Duffy PA, Walsh JE, Graham JM, Mann DH, Rupp TS (2005) Imapcts of large-scale atmospheric–ocean variability on Alaskan fire season severity. Ecol Appl 15:1317–1330CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Flannigan M, Stocks B, Turetsky M, Wotton M (2009) Impacts of climate change on fire activity and fire management in the circumboreal forest. Glob Change Biol 15:549–560CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gavin DG, Brubaker LB, Lertzman KP (2003) An 1800-year record of the spatial and temporal distribution of fire from the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada. Can J For Res 33:573–586CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Genet H, McGuire AD, Barrett K, Breen A, Euskirchen ES, Johnstone JF, Kasischke ES, Melvin AM, Bennett A, Mack MC, Rupp TS, Schuur AEG, Turetsky MR, Yuan F (2013) Modeling the effects of fire severity and climate warming on active layer thickness and soil carbon storage of black spruce forests across the landscape in interior Alaska. Environ Res Lett 8:045016CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Girardin MP, Ali AA, Carcaillet C, Blarquez O, Hély C, Terrier A, Genries A, Bergeron Y (2013) Vegetation limits the impact of a warm climate on boreal wildfires. New Phytol 199:1001–1011CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Harris I, Jones PD, Osborn TJ, Lister DH (2014) Updated high-resolution grids of monthly climatic observations—the CRU TS3.10 Dataset. Int J Climatol 34:623–642CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Héon J, Arseneault D, Parisien M-A (2014) Resistance of the boreal forest to high burn rates. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 111:13888–13893CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Higuera PE, Brubaker LB, Anderson PM, Hu FS, Brown TA (2009) Vegetation mediated the impacts of postglacial climate change on fire regimes in the south-central Brooks Range, Alaska. Ecol Monogr 79:201–219CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Higuera PE, Gavin DG, Bartlein PJ, Hallett DJ (2010) Peak detection in sediment-charcoal records: impacts of alternative data analysis methods on fire-history interpretations. Int J Wildland Fire 19:996–1014CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Higuera PE, Peters ME, Brubaker LB, Gavin DG (2007) Understanding the origin and analysis of sediment-charcoal records with a simulation model. Quatern Sci Rev 26:1790–1809CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Higuera PE, Whitlock C, Gage JA (2011) Linking tree-ring and sediment-charcoal records to reconstruct fire occurrence and area burned in subalpine forests of Yellowstone National Park, USA. Holocene 21:327–341CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hu FS, Brubaker LB, Gavin DG, Higuera PE, Lynch JA, Rupp TS, Tinner W (2006) How climate and vegetation influence the fire regime of the Alaskan boreal biome: the Holocene perspective. Mitig Adapt Strat Glob Change 11:829–846CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Johnson EA (1992) Fire and vegetation dynamics: studies from the North American boreal forest. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Johnstone JF, Allen CD, Franklin JF, Frelich LE, Harvey BJ, Higuera PE, Mack MC, Meentemeyer RK, Metz MR, Perry GLW, Schoennagel T, Turner MG (2016) Changing disturbance regimes, ecological memory, and forest resilience. Front Ecol Environ 14:369–378CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Johnstone JF, Chapin FS (2006) Fire interval effects on successional trajectory in boreal forests of northwest Canada. Ecosystems 9:268–277CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Johnstone JF, Chapin FS, Hollingsworth TN, Mack MC, Romanovsky V, Turetsky MR (2010a) Fire, climate change, and forest resilience in interior Alaska. Can J For Res 40:1302–1312CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Johnstone JF, Hollingsworth TN, Chapin FS, Mack MC (2010b) Changes in fire regime break the legacy lock on successional trajectories in Alaskan boreal forest. Glob Change Biol 16:1281–1295CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Kasischke ES, Turetsky MR (2006) Recent changes in the fire regime across the North American boreal region—spatial and temporal patterns of burning across Canada and Alaska. Geophys Res Lett 33:L09703Google Scholar
  34. Kasischke ES, Verbyla DL, Rupp TS, McGuire AD, Murphy KA, Jandt R, Barnes JL, Hoy EE, Duffy PA, Calef M, Turetsky MR (2010) Alaska’s changing fire regime—implications for the vulnerability of its boreal forests. Can J For Res 40:1313–1324CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kasischke ES, Williams D, Barry D (2002) Analysis of the patterns of large fires in the boreal forest region of Alaska. Int J Wildland Fire 11:131–144CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Kelly R, Chipman ML, Higuera PE, Stefanova I, Brubaker LB, Hu FS (2013) Recent burning of boreal forests exceeds fire regime limits of the past 10,000 years. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 110:13055–13060CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kelly RF, Higuera PE, Barrett CM, Hu FS (2011) A signal-to-noise index to quantify the potential for peak detection in sediment–charcoal records. Quatern Res 75:11–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Krawchuk MA, Moritz MA (2011) Constraints on global fire activity vary across a resource gradient. Ecology 92:121–132CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Long CJ, Whitlock C, Bartlein PJ, Millspaugh SH (1998) A 9000-year fire history from the Oregon Coast Range, based on a high-resolution charcoal study. Can J For Res 28:774–787CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Lynch JA, Clark JS, Bigelow NH, Edwards ME, Finney BP (2002) Geographic and temporal variations in fire history in boreal ecosystems of Alaska. J Geophys Res 108:1–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Lynch JA, Clark JS, Stocks BJ (2004a) Charcoal production, dispersal, and deposition from the Fort Providence experimental fire: interpreting fire regimes from charcoal records in boreal forests. Can J For Res 34:1642–1656CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Lynch JA, Hollis JL, Hu FS (2004b) Climatic and landscape controls of the boreal forest fire regime: Holocene records from Alaska. J Ecol 92:477–489CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Macias Fauria M, Johnson EA (2008) Climate and wildfires in the North American boreal forest. Philos Trans R Soc B 363:2315–2327CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Mann DH, Scott Rupp T, Olson MA, Duffy PA (2012) Is Alaska’s boreal forest now crossing a major ecological threshold? Arct Antarct Alp Res 44:319–331CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Nowacki GJ, Spencer P, Fleming M, Brock T, Jorgenson T (2003) Unified Ecoregions of Alaska, 2001. Unified ecoregions of Alaska and Neighboring Territories, U.S. Geological Survey MapGoogle Scholar
  46. Parisien MA, Parks SA, Krawchuk MA, Flannigan MD, Bowman LM, Moritz MA (2011) Scale-dependent controls on the area burned in the boreal forest of Canada, 1980–2005. Ecol Appl 21:789–805CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Parks SA, Holsinger LM, Miller C, Nelson CR (2015) Wildland fire as a self-regulating mechanism: the role of previous burns and weather in limiting fire progression. Ecol Appl 25:1478–1492CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Parks SA, Miller C, Holsinger LM, Baggett LS, Bird BJ (2016) Wildland fire limits subsequent fire occurrence. Int J Wildland Fire 25:182–190CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Pausas JG, Ribeiro E (2013) The global fire–productivity relationship. Glob Ecol Biogeogr 22:728–736CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Payette S (1992) Fire as a controlling process in the North American boreal forest. In: Shugart HH, Leemans R, Bonan GB (eds) A systems analysis of the global boreal forest. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 144–169CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. R Core Team (2016) R: a language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, ViennaGoogle Scholar
  52. Randerson JT, Liu H, Flanner MG, Chambers SD, Jin Y, Hess PG, Pfister G, Mack MC, Treseder KK, Welp LR, Chapin FS, Harden JW, Goulden ML, Lyons E, Neff JC, Schuur EAG, Zender CS (2006) The impact of boreal forest fire on climate warming. Science 314:1130–1132CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Shenoy A, Johnstone JF, Kasischke ES, Kielland K (2011) Persistent effects of fire severity on early successional forests in interior Alaska. For Ecol Manage 261:381–390CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. SNAP: Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning, University of Alaska (2015) Historical Monthly and Derived Temperature Products Downscaled from CRU TS data via the delta method - 2 km. Accessed Jan 2016
  55. Turner MG, Dale VH, Gardner RH (1989) Predicting across scales: theory development and testing. Landscape Ecol 3:245–252CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Whitlock C, Higuera PE, McWethy DB, Briles CE (2010) Paleoecological perspective on fire ecology: revisiting the fire regime concept. Open Ecol J 3:6–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Wiles GC, D’Arrigo RD, Barclay D, Wilson RS, Jarvis SK, Vargo L, Frank D (2014) Surface air temperature variability reconstructed with tree rings for the Gulf of Alaska over the past 1200 years. Holocene 24:198–208CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Young AM, Higuera PE, Duffy PA, Hu FS (2017) Climatic thresholds shape northern high-latitude fire regimes and imply vulnerability to future climate change. Ecography 40:606–617CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecosystem and Conservation SciencesUniversity of MontanaMissoulaUSA
  2. 2.Department of Integrative BiologyUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA

Personalised recommendations