Fire in the land of ice: Sander Veraverbeke wins ERC Consolidator Grant

Researcher Sander Veraverbeke has been awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant of €2.37 million for his research project FireIce. Fire in the land of ice: climatic drivers and feedbacks. FireIce will study the links between climate change and wildfires in Alaska, Canada and Siberia.

12/10/2020 | 2:25 PM

Veraverbeke is an assistant professor in Earth Sciences at VU Amsterdam. In 2018, his project Fires Pushing Trees North was awarded a Vidi grant by the Dutch Research Council (NWO). He is one of four brand-new VU laureates, two of whom work for the Faculty of Science. The other is computational neuroscientist Martijn van den Heuvel [link].

Record years
Heatwaves and wildfires in Alaska and Siberia have been making headlines for the past two summers. Since 1997, when consistent measurements first began, the record year for the total area ravaged by fire within the Arctic Circle is 2020, with 2019 in second place. In previous research, published in Nature Climate Change Veraverbeke discovered that wildfires are advancing northwards, driven by an increase in lightning strikes.

Tundra in flames
“This means that more and more wildfires are breaking out on the tundra, where no trees grow and the ground is permanently frozen,” Sander Veraverbeke explains. “This is a new phenomenon, one we actually know very little about.” A fire of that kind strips the protective peat layer from the permanently frozen soil, after which this permafrost soil can thaw for decades. “It’s a process that releases greenhouse gases, such as methane. In the FireIce project, we are going to quantify these emissions for the first time.” In doing so, Veraverbeke and his team will make use of satellite observations and field measurements. A substantial share of the ERC grant – €370,000 to be precise – is reserved for the purchase of scientific equipment.

Measurement gap in Siberia
In recent years ground-breaking research has been carried out into forest fires in Alaska and Canada as part of the large-scale NASA Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, in which Veraverbeke is involved. He co-wrote a recently published article in Nature Climate Change on carbon emissions from boreal forest fires in North America. Veraverbeke recalls, “This was important work. At the same time, we know that the Arctic-boreal area in Siberia is about twice as large as that in North America. Yet in Siberia, hardly any measurements have been taken.” The researchers therefore plan to carry out the field measurements for the FireIce project in Siberia. “Wildfires are playing a leading role in the rapidly changing Arctic. FireIce will uncover and quantify the underlying processes,” he concludes.

Sander Veraverbeke is an assistant professor in Earth Observation working for the Earth Sciences department of VU Amsterdam’s Faculty of Science. In 2018, his project Fires Pushing Trees North was awarded a Vidi grant by the Dutch Research Council (NWO).

Veraverbeke’s field of interest lies in the interactions between the climate, the terrestrial biosphere, the atmosphere and the carbon cycle. His research focuses on disruptions to ecosystems, mainly as a result of forest fires. His aim is to better understand the complex interactions between ecosystems, carbon cycles, climate and people in a changing world.

Veraverbeke obtained his doctorate in geography in 2010 at Ghent University. Between 2011 and 2016, he worked in the United States: first as a postdoc researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and later as a project scientist at the University of California, Irvine. In 2016, Veraverbeke joined VU Amsterdam as an assistant professor in Earth Observation. Veraverbeke is a member of the NASA Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment science team and serves on the management committee of Europe’s COST research network Fire in the Earth System.


Photo: Smoke plumes and fire-ravaged forests and tundra in a satellite image taken by the Visible Infrared Radiometer Suite over Northeast Siberia on 23 June 2020. The Arctic Ocean is still largely frozen.