Frontier Scientists

Photo by Astronaut Jeff Williams, NASA Earth Observatory

The Frontier Scientists blog is for travelers, teachers, students, aspiring scientists, and anyone interested in scientific discovery in the Alaskan arctic.

Come here for videos, photos and summaries that put you in the front row for breaking scientific news in the Far North. Research by our team of Alaska-based scientists includes 10,000-year-old archeological finds, photos of active Cook Inlet volcanoes taken from the space station, climate change, Denali Park’s grizzlies, the nexus of Russian and native artistic traditions, and more.

Come along as scientists themselves are startled by the unexpected in field locations so remote researchers are often the first modern visitors to set foot in them.

Contact Liz O’Connell at

What I learned this Earth Day, 2014 - 4/22/2014 7:16 pm

Predicting the effect of anomalous sea ice loss and increasing sea surface temperatures on global storm systems - 4/15/2014 8:48 pm

The ground changing under our feet – Thermokarsts - 4/8/2014 2:24 pm

Snowy Owl Irruption - 4/2/2014 7:40 am

Tram Powered International Tundra Experiment - 3/25/2014 5:40 pm

Modeling shifting oceanscapes; a collective pursuit - 3/18/2014 6:29 pm

Iditarod sled dogs’ fat burning capabilities - 3/12/2014 11:04 pm

68 million ton landslide in Alaska: Mount La Perouse - 3/5/2014 7:34 pm

Burned Alaska may cause more burned Alaska

by Ned Rozell

The blackened scars that Alaska fires leave on the landscape may result in more lightning, more rain in some areas just downwind of the scars, and less rain farther away, according to two scientists.

Nicole Mölders and Gerhard Kramm, both of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, study how changes in landscapes affect the weather. After Alaska’s fire season in 2004, when smoke befouled much of the air Alaskans breathed and a collective area the size of Vermont burned, the scientists wondered how all that charred country would affect local weather patterns.

The researchers used MM5, a computer model based at Penn State University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, to simulate conditions on the ground and in the air above it. They compared the surface of Alaska before and after Alaska’s record fire season, in which 6.72 million acres burned. The model told them that fire scars larger than 250,000 acres—about the space taken up by the five boroughs of New York City—have an impact on weather close to the fire scar.

A fire scar in the making near Venetie, Alaska on June 24, 2004.: Image courtesy U.S. Geological Survey and Geographic Information Network of Alaska.A fire scar in the making near Venetie, Alaska on June 24, 2004.: Image courtesy U.S. Geological Survey and Geographic Information Network of Alaska.

“There’s more rain locally, in the lee side of the scar and then less precipitation farther out,” Mölders said. “It’s a far-reaching impact.” She and Kramm also said fire scars might be responsible for flash floods in areas close to them, and fire scars might also help generate lighting strikes.

“Formation of thunderstorms is more likely (around large fire scars) than in the unburned forest,” Kramm said.

Burned areas may be weather-makers because hot fires destroy trees, shrubs, moss, and other plants that cool the soil and the surrounding air. Satellite sensors have shown higher summer temperatures in a fire scar in Canada up to 15 years after the burn, Mölders said.

Mölders said fire scars might create the following weather-altering scenario: The warm soil in a burned area heats up the air above it, and that hot, dry air rises. Moist air from unburned areas rushes in to fill the void, and that moist air also rises. That air cools as it rises, reaches a saturation point and condenses into a cloud that lifts higher than surrounding clouds.

That cloud, now loaded with moisture, reaches a level where graupel, ice pellets that resemble tiny hailstones, forms. As graupel particles rise, electrical charges occur within the cloud and increase the possibility of lightning strikes.

The cloud moves downwind and releases its moisture as rain adjacent to the fire scar. After the cloud dumps its load, areas farther away don’t receive any rain where they possibly would have if a fire scar were not located upwind.

Though the model tells the researchers that large fire scars affect summer weather, fire scars seem to cool the landscape after the snow falls. A group of scientists, including UAF’s Terry Chapin, studied areas around Delta Junction that burned three, 15, and about 80 years ago. Looking at the sun’s radiation absorbed all year, rather than just summer, they found that the burn-scar sites absorbed less heat year-round, mostly because snow covered more of the ground surface of recently burned sites during winter.

Mölders and Kramm want to use a new weather research and forecasting computer model to combine the effects of burn scars in summer with local weather. They hope to develop forecasts that might help firefighters and pilots of small aircraft that operate around fire scars.

The Alaska Science Forum has been provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community since the late 1970s. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.

Posted at University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute : Alaska Science Forum by Ned Rozell on July 02 2010


Frontier Scientists: presenting scientific discovery in the Arctic and beyond

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