Eastern Interior Field Office

No Place Like Nome Creek (cont.)

For U.S. Forest Service forest ecologist Teresa Hollingsworth, Nome Creek has yet another attraction as a research site: its recent fire history. Hollingsworth has studied Nome Creek’s boreal forest for the last ten years. In 2004 the 500,000-acre Boundary Fire marched across the valley, consuming many of her research plots. While others noticed only the scorched trees left by the fire, Hollingsworth saw new opportunities to study how Interior Alaska’s forests are adapting to the hotter, more severe fires that have come to dominate the state’s recent fire seasons. Some of her Nome Creek plots are part of a new study investigating whether post-fire conditions left by these more severe fires might give deciduous trees a greater role in forest succession in the Interior.

The environmental processes studied by Crawford and Hollingsworth are both too gradual and subtle to be noticed by the visitors enjoying Nome Creek’s trails and blueberry patches. However, these processes all take place against a backdrop of constant environmental changes apparent to all – changes in temperature, wind and precipitation. This type of data is also critical to understanding the proverbial ‘big picture’ of climate change.

A hydrologist measuring stream flow on Nome Creek. 
BLM hydrologic technician 
Eric Deal measures stream flow on Nome Creek.
 
Measuring and recording such data partly falls to Eastern Interior Field Office hydrologist Ben Kennedy. He and his hydrologic technicians can be seen each summer wading across Nome Creek with survey rods, water quality monitoring equipment and other instruments. Several years ago Kennedy also worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to establish an automated weather station near the Mt. Prindle Campground, at the upper end of the valley. Through such efforts, researchers are trying to assemble a detailed and accurate record of how the creek responds to rain- and snow fall within its drainage area.

“This work provides everyone doing work out there a set of standard climate data that is very useful,” Kennedy says.

Last summer the BLM also established a set of survey monuments throughout the valley, allowing researchers much more accurate measurements of flood events, natural and human-caused alterations to the stream channel and other environmental changes.

The last 50 years brought considerable change to Nome Creek as gold mining slowly gave way to family-oriented summer recreation. It remains to be seen how strongly climate change – and its interrelated impacts on vegetation, wildfire frequency and permafrost – will shape Nome Creek’s next 50 years and beyond. However, today’s research projects should provide scientists with valuable benchmarks against which to measure the extent and pace of what is to come.

[A shortened version of this story appeared in the Winter 2011/2012 edition of the BLM-Alaska newsletter Frontiers.]

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