GVSU expert on rampant Arctic fires: 'fulfilling a prophecy'

Fires sweeping across the Arctic are not only significantly altering the region but are also a sign that the climate change effect scientists have predicted is coming true, said a Grand Valley expert on the Arctic.

Bob Hollister, professor of biology and leader of the university's Arctic Ecology Program, said the fires are "fulfilling a prophecy" of how warming in the Arctic would transform a region he has traveled to since the 1990s to monitor changes in tundra vegetation. His research includes current work tied to a $1 million, five-year grant by the National Science Foundation that has continued in a reduced capacity during the pandemic.

"The Arctic region is changing dramatically and I don’t use that term lightly," Hollister said. "There won’t be year-round sea ice in my lifetime. With the amount of global warming we’re anticipating, the Arctic as we know it will cease to exist and it will become more of a tree area."

Bob Hollister
Bob Hollister
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

He said the fires, which have intensified in recent years, are both caused by warming and causing more warming. A temperature increase of a few degrees has created an atmosphere with more evaporation, making conditions drier.

That drier landscape leads to a bigger supply of carbon-rich organic matter susceptible to the fires. Hollister said the burning, in turn, releases large amounts of carbon — he said the Arctic tundra has levels that are greater than the trees in the rainforest — which then contributes to more warming.

The resulting soil breakdown also is a key fire concern, he said: "There is the equivalent of 50 to 100 years of normal breakdown in one fire."

Unlike wildfires in other parts of the world where humans are often the cause, the primary culprit in these fires appears to be lightning, Hollister said, adding that weather condition is interesting because folklore and his early education on the Arctic both indicated lightning was non-existent in the region at one time. The fires generally burn because they are in such remote areas that it isn't feasible to use firefighting equipment, he noted.

The region's warming affects everyone because the Arctic is the globe's thermoregulator, acting as a sort of chimney, he said. "As the poles warm that throws off the climate pattern for the globe," he said.

The effect of that warming on vegetation, and ultimately the ecosystem, is the focus of Hollister's decades-long research of the Arctic. 

Researchers work in the Arctic.
Researchers work in the Arctic. Grand Valley students are a key component of the research.
Image credit - Courtesy of the GVSU Arctic Ecology Program

Typically he and a team of undergraduate and graduate students would be in the Arctic for research funded by the $1 million grant. The research specifically explores how climate change impacts vegetation in the regions of Utqiagvik, Atqasuk and Toolik Lake. The research sites originally were established as part of the International Tundra Experiment (ITEX), a collaboration of researchers worldwide studying the same issues. Hollister serves as the co-chair of the ITEX.

With travel grounded by the pandemic, Hollister has been able to enlist villagers in these areas to obtain basic data and take pictures to help move the research along, though understandably not to the extent that his team would do; Zoom meetings are helping with communication.

He is hoping to extend the field season covered by the grantbut said he also laments the lost opportunity for students, who have been a key part of his research.


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