Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Forest Service, Department of Defense study impact to training areas

Landscape of black spruce showing multiple periods of fire, on the Yukon training area of Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Forest Service photo by Bruce Marcot, PNW Research Station.

ALASKA – This summer, Pacific Northwest Research Station began a new collaborative research project with the Department of Defense to analyze future impacts of disturbances and climate change on the important training areas of Fort Wainwright, a U.S. Army base near Fairbanks, Alaska. The study is funded by a grant from the U.S. Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program. 

Pacific Northwest Research Station research wildlife biologist Bruce Marcot joined an elite team of scientists, including experts in permafrost thaw, geochemistry, vegetation ecology, and other fields. In the first outing in this 3-year venture, the team—which includes researchers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering laboratory and the University of Alaska Fairbanks—explored the diverse landscapes and ecology of the region and devised the means by which they will project changes and predict implications for wildlife and soil stability, and potential effects on Army training activities in coming decades.

The team will rely on a wide range of data and methods, beginning with studies of how vegetation and aquatic cover types have changed in recent years. They will also use data from field observations and monitoring sensors on soil temperature, layering depth of peat in bogs, slope stability, yearly thaw depth, changes in soil ice wedges, and permafrost presence and depth, projecting how these variables will change under different climate change scenarios, thus affecting the vegetation and aquatic conditions of the region.

From this data, the team will build probability models to forecast the distribution and amount of each vegetation and aquatic cover type into the future, and relate those types to habitats used by wildlife in the region. The team expects changes in both plant and animal types in the future; some that will enter the region as habitats change and some that will become threatened and endangered.

The ultimate goal is to provide a user-friendly mapping system to run various land management scenarios that will help Fort Wainwright adapt to climate change, and to help inform the Department of Defense on land stability, shifts in permafrost conditions, and at-risk wildlife species. The teams expects to use USFS Forest Inventory and Analysis datasets from the region, and to coordinate extending the wildlife portion of the study to the adjacent Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest, which is a long-term ecological reserve administered by the Pacific Northwest Research Station.