Like never before, regions we typically associate with cold and ice are being over-run by wildfires. It’s a situation brought on by human-caused climate change. For our continued burning of fossil fuels is causing the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the rest of the globe. Under this oppressive influx of heat, the permafrost is thawing. And the fragile plants, frozen lands, and soils dependent on much cooler conditions simply cannot cope. Increasingly, and on greater and greater scales, they are burning.
(Large Greenland fire captured by NASA’s Earth Observatory on August 7th.)
This past week, an outlandish wildfire ignited about 100 miles southwest of Ilulissat near the western coast of Greenland. The fire, visible by satellite, cast a long smoke plume even as it exploded into fierce intensity. The odd blaze subsequently generated a rash of expert chatter among Arctic observers on twitter even as news sources like NPR scrambled for contextual information.
Due to typically very low fire incidence, Greenland lacks a national forest fire information center. However, widespread satellite reports and news based observation provide a pretty clear context for this odd event. According to news reports from NPR, the fire itself is a complex of multiple blazes — the largest of which has expanded to 3,000 acres. It’s a massive forest fire. And it’s exceptionally odd seeing such a blaze light up in typically-frozen Greenland.
The fire ignited as temperatures rose to near 70 degrees (F) across the region. A range that is well above average for this Arctic zone. And brisk, down-sloping winds likely helped to speed the fire’s initial rapid expansion.
Fires do occur at times in Greenland. But they are usually rare and small. This year’s fires, on the other hand, have been exceptional. Preliminary satellite observation indicates that as much as 8 times the typical number of active fires have ignited so far in Greenland during 2017. And there is every indication that this particular fire complex is the largest ever recorded on an island that is mostly blanketed by thousands of feet of ice.
The fire itself is burning through peatlands — which contain deep, carbon-rich soils. In many regions, thawed permafrost ultimately becomes peat. In addition, peat itself is very sensitive to climate change related warming. For as exceptional heat dries the peat, it becomes a deep, dense fuel for fires. When the fires ultimately come, they can eat far into the peat soils — burning 3 feet or more beneath the ground.
Though not as bad as fossil fuel burning for the climate system, peat fires do provide a troubling amplifying feedback to human-caused climate change if they become widespread and if large permafrost zones thaw into peat and subsequently burn. One researcher noted to the New York Times last year that: “It’s carbon that has accumulated over several thousands of years. If it were to be released, the global CO2 concentration would be much higher.”
(Fires burning near the melting Greenland Ice Sheet are likely in a recently thawed permafrost zone. Permafrost contains a massive carbon store that if released will further exacerbate human-caused warming. Wildfires are one mechanism promoting that release. And as Arctic lands thaw and warm, more large fires are popping up across the Arctic. Image source: NASA Worldview.)
Jessica L. McCarty, an Assistant Professor of Geography at Miami University provides further context regarding the massive Greenland fires:
“They are likely occurring in areas of degraded permafrost, which are predicted to have high thaw rates between now and 2050 with some evidence of current melt near Sisimiut. Fires in the High Northern Latitudes release significant CO2, CH4, N20, and black carbon. A fire this close to the Greenland Ice Shelf is likely to deposit additional black carbon on the ice, further speeding up the melt.”
Siberian Wildfires Now Extremely Intense
In many places throughout the Arctic, rapidly warmed and dried peatlands, forests and previously frozen permafrost zones are also burning. In Siberia the inky smoke plumes from massive fires today stretch for nearly 2,000 miles. Numerous fire complexes that dwarf the odd Greenland blaze are plainly visible in the satellite picture.
(The smoke plume in this image would blanket most of Greenland. Massive wildfires belch giant plumes of inky smoke over Siberia and the Arctic Ocean on August 9th. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 1,200 miles. Image source: NASA Worldview.)
The fires come with extreme heat along a high pressure ridge zone stretching from Lake Baikal all the way to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Today, temperatures in this Arctic and near Arctic region are ranging from 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit or as much as 35 degrees (F) above average.
With so much Arctic warming and thawing now ongoing, massive fires have become a frequent occurrence during summertime in Siberia recently. And this year, Russia has resorted to cloud seeding in an apparently fruitless attempt to suppress the enormous blazes.
Most of today’s fires are burning in Yakutia — which contains one of the largest global stores of permafrost carbon in the world. During recent years, permafrost has more and more rapidly thawed through this zone — providing a larger and larger store of peat-like fuels for the kinds of fires we are seeing today.
Hat tip to Andy in San Diego
Hat tip to Vic
Hat tip to Greg