Context: 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. Objectives: 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. Methods: 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. Results: 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. Conclusions: 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.
- Black spruce
- Boreal forest