Surface Water Dynamics of Shallow Lakes Following Wildfire in Boreal Alaska

Garrett L. Altmann
M. S. Thesis
Dec. 2013
University of Alaska Fairbanks


Wildfire is ubiquitous to interior Alaska and is the primary large-scale disturbance regime affecting thawing permafrost and ecosystem processes in boreal forests. Since surface and near surface hydrology is strongly affected by permafrost occurrence, and wildfire can consume insulating organic layers that partially control the thickness of the active layer overlying permafrost, changes in the active layer thickness following fire may mark a distinct change in surface hydrology. In this study, we examined surface area dynamics of lakes following wildfire in four regions of Interior Alaska during a 25- year period from 1984 - 2009. We compared the surface water dynamics of lakes in burned areas relative to lakes in adjacent unburned (control) areas. Lake area changes in the short-term (0-5 years), mid-term (5-10 years), and long-term (>10 years) were analyzed. Burn severity, as a function of radiant surface temperature change, was also explored. Surface water changes were greatest during the short-term (0-5 years) period following fire, where burn lakes increased 10% and control lakes decreased -8% (P=0.061). Over the 5-10 year post-fire period, there was no significant difference in lake dynamics within burned areas relative to control unburned areas. On average, there was an 18 percent decrease in surface water within burned areas over the >10 year post fire time period, while unburned control lakes averaged a 1 percent decline in surface water. The long term declining trend within burned areas may have been due to talik expansion and/or increased evapotranspiration with revegetation of broadleaf plants. Fire had the greatest effect on radiant surface temperature within two years of a fire, where radiant vi temperatures increased 3-7˚C in the most severely impacted areas. Temperature differences between burn and control areas remained less than 1˚C as vegetation reestablished. There was no correlation between radiant temperature change and decreasing lake area change. Conversely, there was a trend between lake area differences increasing in size and increases in temperature. While fire displayed the greatest effect on lake area in the short-term, a combination of fire, climate, and site-specific conditions dominate long-term lake area dynamics in Alaska boreal forest.