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"Baked Alaska" -- The Discovery Files

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After a 10,000-year absence, wildfires have returned to the Arctic tundra, and a University of Florida study shows that their impact could extend far beyond the areas blackened by flames.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

(Sound effect: Arctic winds) "Double Un-tundra"

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

The words, "tundra" and "fire" together may be hard to get your head around. A tundra is basically permanently frozen soil or permafrost insulated by a layer of organic soil above it, doesn't sound that flammable and tundra fires really haven't been an issue in some 11,000 years.

A new study from researchers at the Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology and the University of Florida shows the serious impact of a single tundra fire. The group studied the 2007 Anaktuvuk River fire up close and personal on Alaska's North Slope. The largest recorded tundra fire ever in the arctic -- 401 square miles -- visible from space -- a real hunka, hunka burning tundra.

As arctic summers get warmer and dryer, so do the soils, which, when dry, are highly flammable. The fire was lightning-sparked. (Sound effect: thunderclap; winds) Spurred by high winds, the team found that this single fire thawed the permafrost and exposed and released carbon into the atmosphere that had been stored as long as 50 years. A huge environmental hit -- recoverable only if there are no more large fires for say 80 to 150 years.

The double whammy is that 2.3 million tons of carbon got released into the atmosphere that could contribute to global climate change. Tundra's do burn -- 'fire and ice' in the Alaskan wilderness.

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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