The Burning Forests of Alaska

Have you wondered about the life of a forest and how trees survive really large wildfires? Forests are full of clues about their past, present, and future if you know where to look! In this module we will learn how to identify the trees and shrubs that make up the boreal forest around Fairbanks and like detectives we will look for clues to uncover their history. We’ll explore areas that have burned recently and compare then to sites that have burned long ago. We will try to figure out what caused the fire, the size and severity of the fire, and investigate how the plants and soil recovered and interacted with weather to form the forest that we see today. Not only will we explore the boreal forest on field trips, but we will also look at satellite images to uncover the history of forests and fire. We will also use tree cores to look back in time to reconstruct fire histories.

We will collect our own data in the field and spend time at the university analyzing data, learning to interpret satellite images, and engage in activities and experiments related to forest life cycle, fire histories and fire behavior. We will also have the opportunity to visit Alaska EPSCoR Vis-Space ( and explore the boreal forest and other places using Google Virtual Reality


burned landscape

Instructor: Shelby Weiss, PhD student at Portland State University
Shelby Weiss  

I am a PhD student at Portland State University and I study the effects of fire frequency and climate change on boreal forests in Interior Alaska, using simulation modeling to look at how these forests may change in the future when there are repeated wildfires. I received by bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University in Wildlife Biology and my master’s degree from Ohio State University where I studied how wildlife on public lands are managed within fire-dependent forest ecosystems like the mixed pine forests of northern Michigan or the longleaf pine forests of the Southeast U.S. I am originally from St. Louis, Missouri and have always loved to travel. Over the years, I have worked in Colorado, Tanzania, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Southeast U.S., and now interior Alaska. In my spare time, I enjoy hiking, reading, knitting, and listening to podcasts. I think spending time in the field is one of the most fun parts of doing ecological research and I am excited to share this experience with students while teaching them about the boreal forest and fire.

Instructor: Dr. Santosh Panda, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Santosh Panda

I am a Geoscientist by training. I study changes in our natural environment using a variety of data and tools which include historic and present satellite images, computer models, and detailed field observations. My current research is focused on Arctic geomorphological processes such as river and coastal erosion, ground subsidence due to permafrost thawing, and on ecosystem processes such as forest fires. One of the perks of my job is spending time in the wilderness collecting data and making observations. As part of my research I have traveled to many remote sites in Alaska by plane, helicopter, boat, and foot. A small part of my job involves visiting schools in remote communities to share my research. So far I have been to 20 remote communities in Alaska for science outreach. I am an avid reader and I love running; I devote a big chunk of my spare time to these activities. Also, I love exploring a new place with my family; we try to visit a new place every year.