Unravelling mechanisms involved in higher latitude wildfires: a trait based and experimental approach


Terrestrial carbon emission is a major component that contributes to global warming. As a result of global warming, permafrost in high latitudes is retreating, exposing large amounts of soil organic carbon (SOC) in subarctic regions. Around 37% of the total amount of carbon stored in terrestrial biospheres can be found in the soil organic matter (SOM) of the boreal region. In particular in higher latitudes, carbon release via decomposition is a slow process and fire is a fast alternative pathway. Fire regimes in higher latitude areas are increasing in frequency and severity, because there the temperature increase is most severe. In the past decades, most fire research has been performed and focussed on warm, highly productive areas, therefore more fire research in higher latitudes in necessary.

Fire research is commonly based on the plant and litter properties (traits) of one particular fuel type or species. However, recent studies found that the interaction between fuels can greatly influence fire behaviour. Therefore, future research requires to include these interactions to fully understand their effect on fire behaviour. In particular, the interaction between below- and above-ground fuels may be very important for the carbon release in higher latitudes. By taking into account the abiotic factors as well, we are able to examine and unravel the mechanisms involved in higher latitude wildfires and the effect on terrestrial carbon emission.


Unravelling the mechanisms that drive fire regimes requires both detailed fire experiments in a controlled laboratory setting as well as validation of the results in field burning experiments. In an experimental approach we first collect plant, litter and soil material in the field and perform fire experiment on small scale in our FLARE (Fire Laboratory Amsterdam for Research in Ecology) laboratory. In our experiments we burn fuel types separately and in a mixed composition. By measuring different fire behaviour parameters while burning different fuels we can find relations between specific fuel traits and fire behaviour. Our project is mainly focussed on the relation between different fuel types, their characteristics and how this affects fire intensity and severity. In addition we examine these interactions in and among different ecosystems to validate the findings and determine differences among ecosystems. We specifically focus on the differences between higher latitude ecosystems such as shrub lands (e.g. tundra or heathlands) and forest ecosystems (e.g. coniferous or boreal forests). Overall, we aim to get a better understanding of the relation between fuel types, fire behaviour and carbon release.


We are looking for highly-motivated students with a background in biology, ecology or a related field.

Supervision and information

Please do not hesitate to contact us for additional information or any questions about the currently available projects.

Luke Blauw | PhD student
Phone: +31 (0)20 – 59 86713 | E-mail: luke.blauw@vu.nl

Hans Cornelissen | Professor
Phone: +31 (0)20 – 59 86962 | E-mail: j.h.c.cornelissen@vu.nl

Rien Aerts | Professor
Phone: +31 (0)20 – 59 87211 | E-mail: m.a.p.a.aerts@vu.nl