The Arctic is burning. Those four words should terrify anyone who reads them. From Russia, to Greenland, to Canada, to Alaska more than 100 wildfires are burning. So far this year, Arctic fires have release 121 million tons of CO2. That’s more than the annual emissions of Belgium.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Trees, plants and peatlands are drying out, providing fuel for huge fires. Most of the fires are caused by lightning.
By June, this year’s fires had already broken the record for the Arctic, set in 2004, of 110 million tons of CO2.
The fires are not just forest fires. Peatlands are also burning. When peat catches fire, it doesn’t burst into flame, but smoulders. The fire can spread deeper and deeper below ground, as well as spreading horizontally. That makes peat fires extremely difficult to put out. Peat fires can burn for months.
Forests can make Arctic peatlands more likely to burn, for two reasons. First, they provide fuel for the fire. Second, when trees grow the ground is in shade, meaning that sphagnum mosses can no longer grow. The mosses are wet, store carbon, and actually help prevent peatland from burning.
Mike Waddington is an ecohydrologist at McMaster University. He recently told Wired magazine that,
“It seems counterintuitive that you could cut down trees and store more carbon but that’s exactly what can happen. You get the mosses to grow, and you not only store carbon but you reduce the risk of future fires.”
Climate change is making the fires worse
On 12 July 2019, the World Meteorological Organization put out a press release that states, “Climate change, with rising temperatures and shifts in precipitation patterns, is amplifying the risk of wildfires and prolonging the season.”
Since the beginning of June 2019, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Services (CAMS) has monitored more than 100 “intense and long-lived wildfires in the Arctic Circle”. On 4 July 2019, temperatures in Alaska reached a record 32°C.
The fires are particularly dangerous for the climate because they produce large amounts of particulate matter. The World Meteorological Organization explains that,
“Particles of smoke can land on snow and ice, causing the ice to absorb sunlight that it would otherwise reflect, and thereby accelerating the warming in the Arctic. Fires in the Arctic also increase the risk of further permafrost thawing that releases methane, which is also a greenhouse gas.
11 million hectares burnt this year in Russia
Smoke from the fires is also affecting large areas of Russia. BBC News reports that cities in eastern Russia have suffered a significant decrease in air quality since the fires started.
Last week, Greenpeace Russia estimated that the wildfires covered an area of more than three million hectares. Every day, the area of fires is increasing by thousands of hectares.
More than 11 million hectares has been burned this year according to Greenpeace Russia.
But Russian authorities are not even attempting to put out most of the fires, arguing that it would be “pointless”.
Nearly 300,000 people have signed Greenpeace Russia’s petition demanding additional forces to fight the fires. And more than 830,000 have signed a demanding that the authorities declare a state of emergency in Siberia.
On 29 July 2019, Russia declared a state of emergency, but only covering two regions of Siberia.
“The most magical place on Earth”
Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecast, comments that,
“Although wildfires are common in the northern hemisphere between May and October, the latitude and intensity of these fires, as well as the length of time that they have been burning for, has been particularly unusual.”
Melissa Chipman is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Syracuse. In 2013, she was a co-author of a paper that concludes that fires in the boreal forest around the Arctic Circle are burning more than at any time in the past 10,000 years.
Chipman finds it difficult to remain unmoved by the images of wildfires in the Arctic. She told Gizmodo that,
“Although my job as a scientist is to examine my data critically and in an unbiased way, I cannot help but be heartbroken at how quickly these changes are taking place… and to watch helplessly as the most magical place on Earth burns….
This is carbon that takes thousands of years to accumulate and… poof… it is gone.”
“A classic feedback loop”
This is not the “new normal”, as then-Governor Jerry Brown described the catastrophic wildfires in California last year. If we fail to find a way of leaving fossil fuels underground, this is just the beginning.
“It is a classic positive feedback loop”, Thomas Smith, professor of geography at the London School of Economics, tells Vice:
“These greenhouse gas emissions (which are not offset by future regrowth) will lead to warming, and warming will increase the likelihood of peat soils being drier earlier in the summer and therefore more likely to burn…. In turn leading to more greenhouse gas emissions.”
PHOTO Credits: Pierre Markuse, blogger and remote sensing expert, Flickr.