Vulnerability of North American boreal peatlands to interactions between climate, hydrology, and wildland fires

Document Type

Conference Paper/Presentation

Publication Date



North American boreal peatland sites of Alaska, Alberta Canada, and the southern limit of the boreal ecoregion (Michigan's Upper Peninsula) are the focus of an ongoing project to better understand the fire weather, hydrology, and climatic controls on boreal peatland fires. The overall goal of the research project is to reduce uncertainties of the role of northern high latitude ecosystems in the global carbon cycle and to improve carbon emission estimates from boreal fires. Boreal peatlands store tremendous reservoirs of soil carbon that are likely to become increasingly vulnerable to fire as climate change lowers water tables and exposes C-rich peat to burning. Increasing fire activity in peatlands could cause these ecosystems to become net sources of C to the atmosphere, which is likely to have large influences on atmospheric carbon concentrations through positive feedbacks that enhance climate warming. Remote sensing is key to monitoring, understanding and quantifying changes occurring in boreal peatlands. Remote sensing methods are being developed to: 1) map and classify peatland cover types; 2) characterize seasonal and inter-annual variations in the moisture content of surface peat (fuel) layers; 3) map the extent and seasonal timing of fires in peatlands; and 4) discriminate different levels of fuel consumption/burn severity in peat fires. A hybrid radar and optical infrared methodology has been developed to map peatland types (bog vs. fen) and level of biomass (open herbaceous, shrubby, forested). This methodology relies on multi-season data to detect phenological changes in hydrology which characterize the different ecosystem types. Landsat data are being used to discriminate burn severity classes in the peatland types using standard dNBR methods as well as individual bands. Cross referencing the peatland maps and burn severity maps will allow for assessment of the distribution of upland and peatland ecosystems affected by fire and quantitative analysis of emissions. Radar imagery from multiple platforms (L-band PALSAR, C-band ERS-2, Envisat, and Radarsat-2) is being used to develop soil moisture extraction algorithms to monitor changes (drying - wetting) through time and to develop a standard method for soil moisture assessment. Using data from the 1990s (ERS-1 and 2) through the present (Radarsat-2) will allow for determination of patterns of wetting and drying across the landscape. All the remote sensing analysis is supported with field work which has been coordinated with that of Canadian scientists. Field collection includes vegetation and hydrology data to validate peatland distribution maps, collection of water table depths and peat moisture content data to aid in algorithm development for radar organic soil moisture retrieval, and characterization of variations in depth of burning and carbon consumption during peatland fires to use in burn severity mapping and fire emissions modeling.

Publisher's Statement

© 2013 American Geophysical Union.

Publication Title

AGU Fall Meeting 2013