Another significant question hangs in the air. Will fire nudge a major transformation of the North Slope groundcover that is already slowly underway?
“Satellites tell us there has clearly been a greening of the Arctic over the past 30 years,” Shaver says. Many observations point to a warmer landscape that will be dominated by shrubs, rather than the grasses and mosses of today. Some scientists forecast that large parts of the Arctic tundra will eventually become forest.
“A key question is whether the conditions on these burn sites are more favorable for the establishment of new seeds, new species,” Shaver says. He and Rocha are keeping a close eye on the tiny sprouts that are pushing up from the blackened land, and within a few years will know whether a change in species composition has emerged from the burn.
“This is very exciting to me,” Shaver says. “If we have more fires in the Arctic, are we moving to a regional system in which the most important changes are occurring in small patches of highly disturbed land, while the rest of the landscape is changing very slowly? If that happens, it is another way of the ecosystem moving to a new state.” —By Diana Kenney.