How Climate and Vegetation Influence the fire Regime of the Alaskan Boreal Biome: The Holocene Perspective

  • Feng Sheng HuEmail author
  • Linda B. Brubaker
  • Daniel G. Gavin
  • Philip E. Higuera
  • Jason A. Lynch
  • T. Scott Rupp
  • Willy Tinner


We synthesize recent results from lake-sediment studies of Holocene fire-climate-vegetation interactions in Alaskan boreal ecosystems. At the millennial time scale, the most robust feature of these records is an increase in fire occurrence with the establishment of boreal forests dominated by Picea mariana: estimated mean fire-return intervals decreased from ≥300 yrs to as low as ∼80 yrs. This fire-vegetation relationship occurred at all sites in interior Alaska with charcoal-based fire reconstructions, regardless of the specific time of P. mariana arrival during the Holocene. The establishment of P. mariana forests was associated with a regional climatic trend toward cooler/wetter conditions. Because such climatic change should not directly enhance fire occurrence, the increase in fire frequency most likely reflects the influence of highly flammable P. mariana forests, which are more conducive to fire ignition and spread than the preceding vegetation types (tundra, and woodlands/forests dominated by Populus or Picea glauca). Increased lightning associated with altered atmospheric circulation may have also played a role in certain areas where fire frequency increased around 4000 calibrated years before present (BP) without an apparent increase in the abundance of P. mariana. When viewed together, the paleo-fire records reveal that fire histories differed among sites in the same modern fire regime and that the fire regime and plant community similar to those of today became established at different times. Thus the spatial array of regional fire regimes was non-static through the Holocene. However, the patterns and causes of the spatial variation remain largely unknown. Advancing our understanding of climate-fire-vegetation interactions in the Alaskan boreal biome will require a network of charcoal records across various ecoregions, quantitative paleoclimate reconstructions, and improved knowledge of how sedimentary charcoal records fire events.


Alaska boreal forests charcoal records climate change fire regime Holocene 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Abbott, M.B., Finney, B.P., Edwards, M.E. and Kelts, K.R.: 2000, ‘Lake-level reconstruction and paleohydrology of Birch Lake, based on seismic reflection profiles and core transects’, Quaternary Research 53, 154–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. ACIA: 2004, Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Anderson, P.M. and Brubaker, L.B.: 1994, ‘Vegetation history of northcentral Alaska – a mapped summary of late-quaternary pollen data’, Quaternary Science Reviews 13, 71–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Anderson, P.M., Edwards, M.E. and Brubaker, L.B.: 2003, ‘Results and paleoclimate implications of 35 years of paleoecological research in Alaska’, Development in Quaternary Science 1, 427–440.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Barley, E.M.: 2004, Paleoclimate Analysis of Southwestern Yukon Territory Using Subfossil Chironomid Remains from Antifreeze Pond, Master's thesis, Simon Fraser University.Google Scholar
  6. Berg, E.E. and Henry, J.D.: 2003, ‘The history of spruce bark beetle outbreak in the Kluane region as determined from the dendrochronology of selected forest stands’, Parks Canada Report. available at:
  7. Bergeron, Y. and Archambault, S.: 1993, ‘Decreasing frequency of forest fires in the southern boreal zone of Quebec and its relation to global warming since the end of the “Little Ice Age”’, Holocene 3, 255–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bergeron, Y., Flannigan, M., Gauthier, S., Leduc, A. and Lefort, P.: 2004, ‘Past, current and future fire frequency in the Canadian boreal forest: Implications for sustainable forest management’, Ambio 33, 356–360.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bergeron, Y., Gauthier, S., Kafka, V., Lefort, P. and Lesieur, D.: 2001, ‘Natural fire frequency for the eastern Canadian boreal forest: consequences for sustainable forestry’, Canadian Journal of Forest Research 31, 384–391.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bigelow, N.H. and Edwards, M.E.: 2001, ‘A 14,000 yr paleoenvironmental record from Windmill Lake, Central Alaska: Lateglacial and Holocene vegetation in the Alaska range’, Quaternary Science Reviews 20, 203–215.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Blackford, J.J.: 2000, ‘Charcoal fragments in surface samples following a fire and the implications for interpretation of subfossil charcoal data’, Palaeogeography Palaeoclimatology Palaeoecology 164, 33–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Calkin, P.E.: 1988, ‘Holocene Glaciation of Alaska (and Adjoining Yukon Territory, Canada)’, Quaternary Science Reviews 7, 159–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Calkin, P.E., Wiles, G.C. and Barclay, D.J.: 2001, ‘Holocene coastal glaciation of Alaska’, Quaternary Science Reviews 20, 449–461.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Carcaillet, C., Bergeron, Y., Richard, P.J.H., Frechette, B., Gauthier, S. and Prairie, Y.T.: 2001, ‘Change of fire frequency in the eastern Canadian boreal forests during the Holocene: Does vegetation composition or climate trigger the fire regime?’ Journal of Ecology 89, 930–946.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cissel, J.H., Swanson, F.J. and Weisberg, P.J.: 1999, ‘Landscape management using historical fire regimes: Blue River, Oregon’, Ecological Applications 9, 1217–1231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Clark, J.S.: 1988, ‘Effect of climate change on fire Regimes in Northwestern Minnesota’, Nature 334, 233–235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Clark, J.S., Lynch, J., Stocks, B.J. and Goldammer, J.G.: 1998, ‘Relationships between charcoal particles in air and sediments in west-central Siberia’, Holocene 8, 19–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Clark, J.S., Royall, P.D. and Chumbley, C.: 1996, ‘The role of fire during climate change in an eastern deciduous forest at Devil's Bathtub, New York’, Ecology 77, 2148–2166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. De Volder, A.: 1999, Fire and Climate History of Lowland Black Spruce Forests, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, Master's thesis, Northern Arizona University.Google Scholar
  20. Duffy, P.A., Walsh, J.E., Graham, J.M., Mann, D.H. and Rupp, T.S.: 2005, ‘Impacts of large-scale atmospheric-ocean variability on Alaskan fire season activity’, Ecological Applications 15, 1317–1330.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Dyrness, C.T., Viereck, L.A. and Van Cleve, K.: 1986, ‘Fire in Taiga Communities of Interior Alaska’, in K. Van Cleve, F.S. Chapin, P.W. Flanagan, L.A. Viereck, C.T. Dyrness (eds.), Forest Ecosystems in the Alaskan Taiga, New York, Springer-Verlag, pp. 74–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Fastie, C.L. and Lloyd, A.H.: 2003, ‘Fire history and postfire forest development in an upland watershed of interior Alaska’, Journal of Geophysical Research 108, FFR6-1 - FFR6-13.Google Scholar
  23. Flannigan, M., Campbell, I., Wotton, M., Carcaillet, C., Richard, P. and Bergeron, Y.: 2001, ‘Future fire in Canada's boreal forest: Paleoecology results and general circulation model – regional climate model simulations’, Canadian Journal of Forest Research 31, 854–864.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Flannigan, M.D. and Van Wagner, C.E.: 1991, ‘Climate change and wildfire in Canada’, Canadian Journal of Forest Research 21, 66–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gardner, J.J. and Whitlock, C.: 2001, ‘Charcoal accumulation following a recent fire in the Cascade Range, northwestern USA., and its relevance for fire-history studies’, Holocene 11, 541–549.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Gavin, D.G., Brubaker, L.B. and Lertzman, K.P.: 2003a, ‘An 1800-year record of the spatial and temporal distribution of fire from the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada’, Canadian Journal of Forest Research 33, 573–586.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Gavin, D.G., Brubaker, L.B. and Lertzman, K.P.: 2003b, ‘Holocene fire history of a coastal temperate rain forest based on soil charcoal radiocarbon dates’, Ecology 84, 186–201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Gavin, D.G., Hu, F.S., Lertzman, K.P. and Corbett, P. In Press, ‘Weak climatic control of stand-scale fire history during the late Holocene in southeastern British Columbia’, Ecology.Google Scholar
  29. Hess, J.C., Scott, C.A., Hufford, G.L. and Fleming, M.D.: 2001, ‘El Nino and its impact on fire weather conditions in Alaska’, International Journal of Wildland Fire 10, 1–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Higuera, P.E., Sprugel, D.G. and Brubaker, L.B.: 2005a, ‘Reconstructing fire regimes with charcoal from small-hollow sediments: A calibration with tree-ring records of fire’, The Holocene 15, 238–251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Higuera, P.E., Brubaker, L.B., Anderson, P.M., Hu, F.S., Clegg, B.F., Brown, T.A. and Rupp, T.S.: 2004, ‘Paleo investigations of climate and ecosystem archives (PICEA): Holocene climate-vegetation-fire interactions in the southern Brooks Range, Alaska’, International Boreal Forest Research Association 12th Annual Scientific Conference, Fairbanks, Alaska, USA, p. 87.Google Scholar
  32. Higuera, P.E., Brubaker, L.B., Anderson, P.M., Hu, F.S., Clegg, B.F., Brown, T.A. and Rupp, T.S.: 2005, ‘Vegetational and climatic influences on fire regimes in the southern Brooks Range, Alaska’, USGS Workshop on Fire History and Climate Synthesis in Western North America, Flagstaff, Arizona, USA, p. 17.Google Scholar
  33. Hu, F.S., Brubaker, L.B. and Anderson, P.M.: 1993, ‘A 12000 year record of vegetation change and soil development from Wien Lake, Central Alaska’, Canadian Journal of Botany 71, 1133–1142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hu, F.S., Brubaker, L.B. and Anderson, P.M.: 1996, ‘Boreal ecosystem development in the northwestern Alaska range since 11,000 yr BP’, Quaternary Research 45, 188–201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Hu, F.S., Ito, E., Brown, T.A., Curry, B.B. and Engstrom, D.R.: 2001, ‘Pronounced climatic variations in Alaska during the last two millennia’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 98, 10552–10556.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Hu, F.S., Ito, E., Brubaker, L.B. and Anderson, P.M.: 1998, ‘Ostracode geochemical record of Holocene climatic change and implications for vegetational response in the northwestern Alaska range’, Quaternary Research 49, 86–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Hu, F.S., Kaufman, D., Yoneji, S., Nelson, D., Shemesh, A., Huang, Y., Tian, J., Bond, G., Clegg, B. and Brown, T.: 2003, ‘Cyclic variation and solar forcing of Holocene climate in the Alaskan subarctic’, Science 301, 1890–1893.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Hu, F.S. and Shemesh, A.: 2003, ‘A biogenic-silica δ18 record of climatic change during the last glacial-interglacial transition in southwestern Alaska’, Quaternary Research 59, 379–385.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Kasischke, E.S., Christensen, N.L.J. and Stocks, B.J.: 1995, ‘Fire, global warming and carbon balance of boreal forests’, Ecological Applications 5, 437–451.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kasischke, E.S., Williams, D. and Barry, D.: 2002, ‘Analysis of the patterns of large fires in the boreal forest region of Alaska’, International Journal of Wildland fire 11, 131–144.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kaufman, D.S., Ager, T.A., Anderson, N.J., Anderson, P.M., Andrews, J.T., Bartlein, P.T., Brubaker, L.B., Coats, L.L., Cwynar, L.C., Duvall, M.L., Dyke, A.S., Edwards, M.E., Eisner, W.R., Gajewski, K., Geirsdottir, A., Hu, F.S., Jennings, A.E., Kaplan, M.R., Kerwin, M.W., Lozhkin, A.V., MacDonald, G.M., Miller, G.H., Mock, C.J., Oswald, W.W., Otto-Bliesner, B.L., Porinchu, D.F., Ruhland, K., Smol, J.P., Steig, E.J. and Wolfe, B.B.: 2004, ‘Holocene thermal maximum in the western Arctic (0-180 degrees W)’, Quaternary Science Reviews 23, 2059–2060.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Larsen, C.P.S.: 1997, ‘Spatial and temporal variations in boreal forest fire frequency in northern Alberta’, Journal of Biogeography 24, 663–673.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Larsen, C.P.S. and MacDonald, G.M.: 1998a, ‘An 840-year record of fire and vegetation in a boreal white spruce forest’, Ecology 79, 106–118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Larsen, C.P.S. and MacDonald, G.M.: 1998b, ‘Fire and vegetation dynamics in a jack pine and black spruce forest reconstructed using fossil pollen and charcoal’, Journal of Ecology 86, 815–828.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Long, C.J., Whitlock, C., Bartlein, P.J. and Millspaugh, S.H.: 1998, ‘A 9000-year fire history from the Oregon Coast Range, based on a high-resolution charcoal study’, Canadian Journal of Forest Research 28, 774–787.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Lynch, J.A., Clark, J.S., Bigelow, N.H., Edwards, M.E. and Finney, B.P.: 2003, ‘Geographic and temporal variations in fire history in boreal ecosystems of Alaska’, Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres 108, FFR8-1–FFR8-17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Lynch, J.A., Clark, J.S. and Stocks, B.J.: 2004a, ‘Charcoal production, dispersal, and deposition from the Fort Providence experimental fire: Interpreting fire regimes from charcoal records in boreal forests’, Canadian Journal of Forest Research 34, 1642–1656.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Lynch, J.A., Hollis, J.L. and Hu, F.S.: 2004b, ‘Climatic and landscape controls of the boreal forest fire regime: Holocene records from Alaska’, Journal of Ecology 92, 477–489.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Lynch, J.A., Hu, F.S. and Hui, A.: 2004c, ‘Does vegetation mediate the fire-climate relationship in boreal regions?’, International Boreal Forest Research Association 12th Annual Scientific Conference, Fairbanks, Alaska, USA, p. 133.Google Scholar
  50. Mann, D.H., Fastie, C.L., Rowland, E.L. and Bigelow, N.H.: 1995, ‘Spruce succession, disturbance, and geomorphology on the Tanana River Floodplain, Alaska’, Ecoscience 2, 184–199.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Mann, D.H. and Plug, L.J.: 1999, ‘Vegetation and soil development at an upland taiga site, Alaska’, Ecoscience 6, 272–285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Millspaugh, S.H., Whitlock, C. and Bartlein, P.J.: 2000, ‘Variations in fire frequency and climate over the past 17 000 yr in central Yellowstone National Park’, Geology 28, 211–214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Mohr, J.A., Whitlock, C. and Skinner, C.N.: 2000, ‘Postglacial vegetation and fire history, eastern Klamath Mountains, California, USA’, Holocene 10, 587–601.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Neilson, R.P.: 1993, ‘Transient ecotone response to climatic change: Some conceptual and modelling approaches’, Ecological Applications 3, 385–395.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Ohlson, M. and Tryterud, E.: 2000, ‘Interpretation of the charcoal record in forest soils: Forest fires and their production and deposition of macroscopic charcoal’, Holocene 10, 519–525.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Ritchie, J.C., Cwynar, L.C. and Spear, R.W.: 1983, ‘Evidence from Northwest Canada for an early Holocene Milankovitch thermal maximum’, Nature 305, 126–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Rouse, W.R.: 1976, ‘Microclimatic changes accompanying burning in subarctic lichen woodland’, Arctic and Alpine Research 8, 357–376.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Rupp, T.S., Starfield, A.M. and Chapin, F.S.: 2000, ‘A frame-based spatially explicit model of subarctic vegetation response to climatic change: Comparison with a point model’, Landscape Ecology 15, 383–400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Rupp, T.S., Starfield, A.M., Chapin, F.S. and Duffy, P.: 2002, ‘Modeling the impact of black spruce on the fire regime of Alaskan boreal forest’, Climatic Change 55, 213–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Starfield, A.M. and Chapin, F.S.: 1996, ‘Model of transient changes in arctic and boreal vegetation in response to climate and land use change’, Ecological Applications 6, 842–864.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Stocks, B.J., Mason, J.A., Todd, J.B., Bosch, E.M., Wotton, B.M., Amiro, B.D., Flannigan, M.D., Hirsch, K.G., Logan, K.A., Martell, D.L. and Skinner, W.R.: 2002, ‘Large forest fires in Canada, 1959-1997’, Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres 108, FFR5-1 - FFR5-12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Stuiver, M., Reimer, P.J., Bard, E., Beck, J.W., Burr, G.S., Hughen, K.A., Kromer, B., McCormac, G., Van der Plicht, J., and Spurk, M.: 1998, ‘INTCAL98 radiocarbon age calibration, 24,000-0 cal BP’, Radiocarbon 40, 1041–1083.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Tinner, W. and Hu, F.S.: 2001, ‘Responses of fire and vegetation to Little-Ice-Age climatic change in boreal Alaska’, The Ecological Society of America 86th Annual Meeting, August, Madison, WI, USA, 221.Google Scholar
  64. Tinner, W. and Hu, F.S.: 2003, ‘Size parameters, size-class distribution and area-number relationship of microscopic charcoal: Relevance for fire reconstruction’, Holocene 13, 499–505.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Tinner, W., Hu, F.S., Beer, R., Kaltenrieder, P., Brigitte Scheurer, B. and Urs Krähenbühl, U.: In Press, ‘Postglacial fire and vegetational history of Alaska: Pollen, plant-macrofossil, and charcoal records from two lakes’, Vegetation History and Archaeobotany.Google Scholar
  66. Weber, M.G. and Flannigan, M.D.: 1997, ‘Canadian boreal forest ecosystems structure and function in a changing climate: impact on fire regimes’, Environmental Reviews 5, 145–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Whitlock, C. and Anderson, R.S.: 2003, ‘Fire history reconstructions based on sediment records from lakes and wetlands’, in T.T. Veblen, W. L. Baker, G. Montenegro, T. Swetnam (eds.), Fire and Climatic Change in Temperate Ecosystems of the Western Americas, New York, Springer, pp. 3–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Whitlock, C. and Millspaugh, S.H.: 1996, ‘Testing the assumptions of fire-history studies: an examination of modern charcoal accumulation in Yellowstone National Park, USA’, Holocene 6, 7–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Whitlock, C., Shafer, S.L. and Marlon, J.: 2003, ‘The role of climate and vegetation change in shaping past and future fire regimes in the northwestern US and the implications for ecosystem management’, Forest Ecology and Management 178, 5–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Wittwer, D.: 2004, ‘Forest Health Conditions in Alaska-2003’, General Technical Report R10-TP-123, USDA Forest Service Alaska Region.Google Scholar
  71. Yarie, J.: 1981, ‘Forest fire cycles and life-tables – a case-study from interior Alaska’, Canadian Journal of Forest Research 11, 554–562.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Feng Sheng Hu
    • 1
    Email author
  • Linda B. Brubaker
    • 2
  • Daniel G. Gavin
    • 1
    • 4
  • Philip E. Higuera
    • 2
  • Jason A. Lynch
    • 1
    • 5
  • T. Scott Rupp
    • 3
  • Willy Tinner
    • 1
    • 6
  1. 1.Departments of Plant Biology and Geology, and Program in Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of IllinoisUrbanaUSA
  2. 2.College of Forest ResourcesUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  3. 3.Department of Forest SciencesUniversity of AlaskaFairbanksUSA
  4. 4.Department of Botany and Agricultural BiochemistryUniversity of VermontBurlingtonUSA
  5. 5.Department of BiologyNorth Central CollegeNapervilleUSA
  6. 6.Institut für PflanzenwissenschaftenUniversität BernBernSwitzerland

Personalised recommendations