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.

As part of our field work to measure carbon emissions in burned areas, we often have to hike through an obstacle course of fallen trees to reach our research sites. I took some video with a GoPro to give a sense of what this is like, as well as how we extract soil to take measurements and how we find the perfect sites.


Elizabeth Wiggins is a PhD student in the department of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine.

ABoVE: Burned boreal forest — Site-seeking struggles

June 14th, 2016 by Jocelyne Laflamme

In the field, collecting the data is a big job – but our work starts long before we start taking measurements, with the task of finding desired sites within the landscape.

Jocelyne coring a tree to determine the age of the forest (Credit: Sander Veraverbeke)

Jocelyne coring a tree to determine the age of the forest (Credit: Sander Veraverbeke)

As our time in Saskatchewan progresses, choosing and finding the right places to collect data becomes progressively more difficult. We are looking for a wide range of forest ages and species composition. This becomes more and more challenging as the time passes, since we now need to find sites with the particular characteristics that we are missing. To find these places, we look at maps that show when and where fires have occurred, and combine this information with maps from logging companies that show location and dates of timber projects.

Every day, we head out to several sites that we identified the night before. We usually drive an hour or so on gravel roads, and hike several hundred meters into the forest. We check for the right species composition at the site, and use a tool called a tree borer to extract a thin cylinder from a nearby tree trunk. From this tree core, we can count the number of rings and determine the approximate age of the forest. If the forest age and species composition meet our expectations, we finally begin our data collection. If not, we return to the car and attempt another location.

It can be challenging when we don’t find what we expected, which can result from inaccuracies in the map layers we use. At times this can be frustrating, but thanks to our team’s stamina, we always eventually manage to find what we need. With only a couple days left in the field, all the gaps in our data will soon be filled.

Jocelyne Laflamme is an undergraduate student in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at the University of Guelph in Canada.

ABoVE: Fires in recently logged forests

June 10th, 2016 by Kylen Solvik

Since our last post, our team has moved an hour south to the small village of Weyakwin, where the Philion fire burned last year. There is a lot of logging Weyakwin, and we are very interested in the interactions between fires and logging. We are comparing burned forests that grew back after people cut trees, to those that grew back after an earlier forest fire.

 Sampling a young harvested site that burned last year. It was harvested only a year or two before it burned. (Credit: Solvik)

Sampling a young harvested site that burned last year. It was harvested only a year or two before it burned. (Credit: Solvik)

We believe there could be differences between the two in burn severity and the amount of carbon released by the fire. When a plot is harvested for lumber, the logs are removed but the soil remains. This is the opposite of burned areas, where fire burns into the soils but a lot of the trees remain standing, albeit charred. To study these differences, we are searching for areas of burn and harvest origin that are about the same age. We have seen some very young burned sites, many were less than 10 years old when they burned. This is surprising since forests in boreal regions typically burn when they are 50 to 100 years old. We were shocked to find a burned plot that had been harvested only a year or two earlier. Even without any significant trees or shrubs to carry the flames, the soil was able to sustain the fire.

At the sample sites, my job is to help characterize and quantify the aboveground biomass. This includes trees, shrubs, and dead trees that have fallen over, called “coarse woody debris.” I work with Brendan Rogers, our team leader, to measure every tree within a 2-by-30 meter sampling area. We identify the tree species, rate the amount of the canopy consumption, and measure the diameter. We will use these numbers to estimate how much carbon was released when that tree burned. Most of these tasks are fairly straightforward — although it can sometimes be tricky to differentiate between similar tree species after they have burned. We can measure individual trees pretty quickly, but it can still take one or even two hours to work through an entire site. At one site, we counted over 350 trees, measuring the diameter and estimating the canopy consumption for each and every one!

Our team and Rita. From left to right: Kylen Solvik, Liz Wiggins, Rita, Brendan Rogers, Sander Veraverbeke, and Jocelyne Laflamme. Missing: Catherine Dieleman, who had to fly home early for a friend’s wedding. (Credit: Solvik)

Our team and Rita. From left to right: Kylen Solvik, Liz Wiggins, Rita, Brendan Rogers, Sander Veraverbeke, and Jocelyne Laflamme. Missing: Catherine Dieleman, who had to fly home early for a friend’s wedding. (Credit: Solvik)

In Weyakwin, we are staying at a small bed & breakfast. Our host, a wonderful lady named Rita, takes great care of us. She cooks us breakfast and dinner, and she even packs us brown bag lunches for us to grab on our way out. After going out for dinner every night at our previous lodging in La Ronge, it has been a great change of pace eating home-cooked meals. We will be staying with Rita for the next week, and then we will be returning to Saskatoon to fly back to our respective homes. One of our team members, Catherine Dieleman, left early for her friend’s wedding. We will miss her and her soil expertise dearly.

But there are a lot more sites to sample before we are done!


Kylen Solvik is a research assistant at Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

ABoVE: Burned boreal forests – the “little moments”

June 8th, 2016 by Catherine Dieleman

One of the best parts of a field campaign are the ‘little moments’ that sneak in while you work. They can really make your day. On that front this field campaign has been no slouch. Yesterday for example, we saw a juvenile black bear while we were traveling to a new field site. We also enjoyed a great sunset over Lake La Ronge here in Saskatchewan, and had a beaver sighting later that evening.

The great sunset the team enjoyed over Lake La Ronge on June 5. (Credit: Dieleman)

The great sunset the team enjoyed over Lake La Ronge on June 5. (Credit: Dieleman)

However, for me one of the best ‘little moments’ happened the day before… Our team is split into a number of different groups that measure different ecosystem characteristics: fire severity, tree density, species and age, as well as soil horizons and depth of burn in the soil. Liz Wiggins and myself work together to collect the soil measurements. As we measure and collect samples from every organic soil horizon, this task can take some time — often causing the soils group to finish up well after the rest of the team. Saturday though, everything came together for us soil diggers, and for the first time on this campaign our little group finished up first. We thought it was worth a victory photo. Sometimes it is the little things.

That Saturday was a particularly eventful day for the whole team. We had a great opportunity to participate in the filming of CBC’s The Nature of Things. Everyone was a pleasant combination of excited with a touch of nerves to be filmed, but generally thrilled to be sharing our science in this medium. The whole filming crew was wonderful, and eased us through the whole process. The sneak peek of the drone footage they shot seemed pretty promising to us, but we will all have to wait till 2017 to see the final footage. I guess some days in the field it is the big things too.

Catherine Dieleman is a post-doctoral researcher in Ecosystem Science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada