Notes from the Field

First Stop: Sampling the 2023 Fires in Quebec

June 25th, 2024 by Lucas Ribeiro Diaz, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

This blog post is the first in a series to come. Our team, the Climate & Ecosystems Change research group from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, is working in collaboration with the Environmental Change Research Unit from the University of Helsinki for a summer with lots of fire field work, science, and adventure. On this journey, our first stop was the Quebec province in Canada. I’m writing this post after our last day of fieldwork here.

The 2023 wildfire season was the largest on record in Canada, with more than double the burned area as the second largest year. In Quebec, an estimated 4.5 million hectares were burned, an area slightly larger than the size of the Netherlands. This record-breaking fire season in Quebec was due to extreme warm and dry conditions. The dense smoke plumes from the 2023 Quebec blazes shocked the world when the smoke reached several cities on the US East Coast, including New York City.

Fellow scientists have been digging deep to understand and explain the phenomena involved in this Quebec fire season. However, as far as we know, estimates of carbon combustion, or the amount of carbon per area burned that is released during a fire, have never been made in Quebec. That’s why we are on it! In loco, since field measurements are a prime way to quantify carbon emissions from fires.

Meet the team: Thomas Janssen, Yuquan Qu, Lucas Diaz, Max van Gerrevink, Sonja Granqvist, and Sander Veraverbeke (from left to right).

We assess post-fire ecosystem effects to calculate carbon pools below and above ground. In other words, this is the carbon stored in the soil and vegetation. After collecting soil samples and inventorying the vegetation, we can compare burned and unburned (control) locations to estimate how much of this carbon was emitted to the atmosphere due to fire. We do this comparison based on what is called the adventitious root method. On black spruce trees, adventitious roots grow above the initial root collar into the upper soil layers and provide a reference for the pre-fire soil height, as they remain clearly visible many years after fire.

Work in progress: Lucas Diaz scouting for a plot location; Sonja Granqvist coring a tree for stand age estimation; Max van Gerrevink measuring adventitious root height; Yuquan Qu collecting a soil sample; Sander Veraverbeke giving an interview for a documentary; Thomas Janssen carrying out the tree inventory (from top/left to bottom/right).

During our expedition, we covered more than 4,000 kilometers on the road. We started by traveling north from Montreal along the James Bay Road and began our sampling at two fires near the locality of Radisson, where the remote Trans-Taiga road was our daily route. We then headed to Waskaganish, on the southeast shore of James Bay, where we sampled another fire. Finally, we ended our campaign at a large fire in the commercial forest near the town of Lebel-sur-Quévillon. All these trips allowed us to make a scientifically interesting transect from North to South in the Quebec province. We also got to know some incredible places, and we are grateful to the people living there who welcomed us.

We were able to observe two different types of intermixed ecosystems in the fires we visited. We found forests dominated by black spruce in peaty lowlands. In drier and often rocky uplands, Jack pine trees dominated. I’m curious to see how these differences will be reflected in practice when we analyze the carbon combustion in these systems.

Two different ecosystems: Black spruce-dominated forests in peaty lowlands (left) and Jack pine dominated forests in dry uplands (right).

Our team in the campaign was Lucas Diaz, Max van Gerrevink, Thomas Janssen, Yuquan Qu, and Sander Veraverbeke from VU Amsterdam, and Sonja Granqvist from the University of Helsinki. The success of this expedition is also thanks to our collaborators here in Quebec who helped us during our preparation: Dominique Arseneault (Université du Québec à Rimouski), Jonathan Boucher and Yan Boulanger (Canadian Forest Service), and Fabio Gennaretti (Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue).

This fieldwork is part of my PhD project, so I was responsible for leading and organizing the entire expedition. As hard as it was, the whole process was also a lot of fun. Several times during the campaign, I felt like I was on a holiday road trip with a group of friends. In the end, that’s not entirely wrong. This kind of experience brings us closer to people. It strengthens existing bonds and creates new ones. This great adventure gave me moments that I will remember forever.

Time passes quickly here in the boreal forest. Soon, it will be time to pack our bags and embark on the next stage of this fiery journey. Curious about the destination? Stay tuned!

Building memories (from left to right): our campsite near the Trans-Taiga Road; sunset in the boreal forest; the joy of a mission accomplished.

The Quebec fires expedition is part of FireIce (Fire in the land of ice: climatic drivers & feedbacks). FireIce is a Consolidator project funded by the European Research Council. FireIce is affiliated with NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE). This blog post was written by Lucas Ribeiro Diaz, a Ph.D. student at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, studying Arctic-boreal fires by combining field and remote sensing approaches.

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