Science Spotlight: Kenai biologist to speak on shifting climate

Mark Melham - Kenai Climate Change.jpg

"The Caribou Hills area of the Kenai Peninsula is one of the best documented instances of climate-driven changes on the landscape and brings cause for concern due to its propensity for fires." File Photo / Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

The Kenai Peninsula is experiencing a wide-ranging shift in its vegetation. As the vegetation composition shifts, so can the fire risk at the urban interface, where towns and cities meet wildlands. Some of the more populous towns in the area now have greater concern over fire threats, decreased snow cover and other impacts from these changes.

John Morton, the supervisory biologist for Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, will discuss the issues, research and ways to mitigate concerns with the UAF community on Oct. 19 in 201 O’Neill at 1 p.m. Morton’s team focused special attention and on an area of the Kenai known as Caribou Hills.

“The most significant ecological effect on the Kenai Peninsula is the apparent deforestation of the southern area in the Caribou Hills area,” Morton said. “We believe this deforestation is ultimately being driven by a warming climate that has been proximately triggered by spruce bark beetle and is persisting because of human-caused fire in grass [that kills tree seedlings].”

What’s most interesting about this issue is that Morton has confidence in his teams’ ability to shift the changing landscape to steadier, less dynamic landscapes.

“We believe we can deliberately steward [the landscape’s] trajectory if so desired: moving it retrospectively back towards a forest or prospectively forward towards a self-sustaining grassland,” Morton said.

Despite differences in vegetation between Kenai and Alaska’s interior boreal forests, there is some overlap in the changes both systems are experiencing. Those similarities include annual precipitation levels, patchiness of the landscape and increased fire risk. It’s possible the stewardship Morton will be talking about can act as a model for the environment surrounding Fairbanks as well.

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