Overwintering fires in boreal forests

Nature. 2021 May;593(7859):399-404. doi: 10.1038/s41586-021-03437-y. Epub 2021 May 19.


Forest fires are usually viewed within the context of a single fire season, in which weather conditions and fuel supply can combine to create conditions favourable for fire ignition-usually by lightning or human activity-and spread1-3. But some fires exhibit 'overwintering' behaviour, in which they smoulder through the non-fire season and flare up in the subsequent spring4,5. In boreal (northern) forests, deep organic soils favourable for smouldering6, along with accelerated climate warming7, may present unusually favourable conditions for overwintering. However, the extent of overwintering in boreal forests and the underlying factors influencing this behaviour remain unclear. Here we show that overwintering fires in boreal forests are associated with hot summers generating large fire years and deep burning into organic soils, conditions that have become more frequent in our study areas in recent decades. Our results are based on an algorithm with which we detect overwintering fires in Alaska, USA, and the Northwest Territories, Canada, using field and remote sensing datasets. Between 2002 and 2018, overwintering fires were responsible for 0.8 per cent of the total burned area; however, in one year this amounted to 38 per cent. The spatiotemporal predictability of overwintering fires could be used by fire management agencies to facilitate early detection, which may result in reduced carbon emissions and firefighting costs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Alaska
  • Algorithms
  • Climate Change
  • Human Activities
  • Lightning
  • Northwest Territories
  • Satellite Imagery
  • Seasons*
  • Spatio-Temporal Analysis
  • Taiga*
  • Time Factors
  • Wildfires / economics
  • Wildfires / prevention & control
  • Wildfires / statistics & numerical data*