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Faculty of Environment

Wildfire & ecosystem scientist leads new research group at SFU

July 12, 2023
Sophie Wilkinson, assistant professor, REM & founder, Fire and Ecosystems Research Group

With a record-breaking wildfire season in full swing, wildfire scientist Sophie Wilkinson joins Simon Fraser University to launch a new lab addressing how increasingly volatile fire seasons are impacting communities and ecosystems.

Wilkinson is founder of the new Fire and Ecosystems Research Group and an assistant professor in the School of Resource & Environmental Management (REM). She’ll head SFU’s Fire and Ecosystems Research Lab, where researchers will study wildfire behaviour and impacts and the conditions that fuel them, including the importance and management of peatlands (bogs, fens and swamps).

“The effects of climate change are a contributing factor to this record-breaking wildfire season and now more than ever, there is a need for scientists to work with community partners to understand and mitigate the impacts,” says Wilkinson. “The creation of this new Fire and Ecosystems Research Lab responds to the need to study and apply up-to-date knowledge for the protection of our ecosystems and communities.”

As head of SFU’s Fire and Ecosystems Research Lab, Wilkinson and her group are developing ecosystem management strategies that reduce the negative impacts fire can have on all aspects of the environment and society.

She applies an interdisciplinary approach to her research by incorporating field assessments and experimental fires with remote sensing and ecological modelling to understand the resilience of ecosystems to wildfire.

Her expertise as a wildfire and ecosystem scientist is timely, given major fire activity across the country, resulting in lost properties and continuous evacuation alerts and orders. The resulting smoke has caused weeks of poor air quality in Canada and the U.S.

Wilkinson’s current research includes understanding patterns of wildfire severity and identifying ecological tipping points to high-severity fire in boreal lowlands and mountain pine beetle-attacked forests of western Canada.

Wilkinson, a former NSERC post-doctoral fellow with the University of Toronto’s School of Forestry FireLab, is also collaborating with the Canadian Forest Service, Provincial Parks and resource and land managers from various industries. She is responsible for developing a new fuel moisture index for the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System and plans to continue translating academic research findings into actionable management solutions in Canada and internationally.

Recent research:

One of her most recent papers, published in Nature, Climate Change finds that wildfires reduce the ability of pristine northern peatlands to store carbon, a greenhouse gas, by 35 per cent and enhance emissions from degraded peatlands by 10 per cent.

The study finds that the impacts of climate change will accelerate carbon losses from peatlands, noting that projected increases in burn severity and burn rate will reduce the carbon sink capacity of northern peatlands by up to 65 per cent by 2100.

Her most recent work, published in Environmental Research highlights the role peatlands play in also storing toxic metals and metalloids such as lead, arsenic, and mercury and risks to human health of wildfires releasing these pollutants into the atmosphere.

The study suggests there is an urgent need to focus policy and research on reversing peatland degradation “that also minimizes future risks for environmental and human health exposure to the toxic environmental legacy held within global peatlands.”