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Alaskan fire damages permafrost

October 9, 2007 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Ecologists plan investigation of massive tundra wildfire.

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Ecologists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are gearing up to assess the effects of the huge wildfire that has so far burned more than 90,000 hectares of tundra and come within a few kilometres of the university's Toolik Field Station. Now thought to be the largest tundra fire ever to hit Alaska's North Slope, the blaze was triggered by a lightning strike on 16 July and has been sustained by the region's unusually warm weather.

Some experts suspect that the fire may have damaged the permafrost beneath it. "We expect that the fire will cause deeper thaw and melting of the upper part of the permafrost," says Syndonia Bret-Harte, who plans to investigate the fallout from the fire next year. She also fears that the plant ecology will take years to recover, that resources for caribou could be affected, and that aquatic ecosystems may be altered by the release of nutrients.

Locals are wondering whether more big wildfires are set to follow. But it will take several more such events before researchers can establish whether there is a pattern. "Those who attribute it to climate change are engaging in speculation, in my opinion," says Bret-Harte's colleague David McGuire.

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