Why Wildfires are Appearing at Unprecedented Rates in the Arctic

Alaska, Greenland and Siberia are experiencing a growing number of wildfires, which are a product of climate change.

Throughout June and July, hundreds of wildfires have flared across the Arctic Circle in Alaska, Siberia and Greenland, releasing clouds of harmful carbon dioxide emissions that equal the total amount of Sweden's annual carbon dioxide emissions.

Fires are common in the northern regions of Alaska between May and October, but not above the tree line, according to Nancy French, senior scientist at the Michigan Technological University. So far in 2019, Alaska has experienced over 400 wildfires, a number that is rising daily.

French added that the Arctic fires are “extreme” because of the speed at which they are moving and the amount of smoke they are producing. Many burn for several weeks or a month, and can be as large as 100,000 acres, or the size of a large city.

Warmer temperatures resulting from climate change explain why more fires have occurred this year. In the northern regions, temperatures have historically been drier and hotter. This part of the globe is also warming much faster than other areas, and experiencing more lightning, which ignites the fires, according to climate scientists.

Alaska, for example, saw its hottest first half of the year in history from January to June of 2019, according to NOAA. And, in June, the state has seen the second highest temperatures since statewide records began in 1925.

These fires are also more impactful because they are thawing the near-surface permafrost and releasing a large amount of carbon emissions, much of which are black soot that is deposited onto glaciers. The warming temperatures have created what's called a continuous positive feedback effect. Hotter weather leads to increased climate change, which results in more fires ignited. When these fires burn, they trap greenhouse gases, which further raise the heat in the atmosphere, according to Crystal Kolden of the University of Idaho. The warming is occuring because of a change in albedo, the reflectiveness of the land, that increases the amount of energy being trapped by the fires. 

“These energy balance issues [create] a global impact, such as the [decrease in] sea ice, the whole way that the Earth operates, its biodiversity,” French said. “In the long run, when looking at this issue, we will have a different change in the way the ecosystem operates. Fire is a catalyst to make that change happen faster.”

In June, Arctic fires released 50 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more than in the same month between 2010 and 2018 combined and equal to Sweden’s annual total carbon dioxide emissions. The country’s emissions result mainly from cars and electricity.  While it does not experience many fires, the fact that a relatively small country’s emissions are rivaled by the region's fires is “pretty amazing,” according to French.

The amount of carbon dioxide emitted by Arctic wildfires continues to rise. Between June 1 and July 19, fires in the region have emitted nearly 100 megatons, a number that is approaching the 2017 fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions of Belgium, according to Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecast.

This spike in fires comes two years after a fire near Sisimiut in western Greenland made international headlines. Greenland rarely had fires in the past, but melting ice has left more of its open land to burn. The majority of the county’s population also lives on the shoreline, meaning that the fire’s impacts on people are greater. On July 10, satellites detected evidence of another fire in Greenland burning east of Sisimiut.


These fires are not suppressed unless they are burning near residential communities, and most are found in grassier, tundra-like areas north of the treeline. Fires typical of the Arctic occur in the forests, but are also difficult to prevent because of the nature of the ecosystem, according to French. The black and spruce pines in the northern areas are very flammable, especially in the drier weather. 

"We often have a visceral reaction when we have a fire to put it out," said Kolden, who teaches in the University of Idaho's Forest, Rangeland, and Fire Sciences Department. "We've done that for 150 years in the U.S. What we have found is that's just throwing money on the fire, that's not effective at all."

Instead, Kolden says that science shows it is more feasible to invest money in reducing fossil fuel consumption globally.

French also notes that fire managers do not have enough experience in fighting these intense fires and more research is needed. Though the Arctic's unprecedented fires are occurring in desolate areas, exposure to smoke poses the top human health risk as the outbreaks spread.

“Part of the reason we should be dealing with these fires is because they give off a lot of smoke,” French said. “The fire management community has a lot of experience, but not with these extreme events. Having them better equipped with what to do with extreme fire is really a key thing.”

In the long-term, the scientists are concerned about the impact emissions will have on amplifying the effects of global climate change, according to Kolden. Fires are increasing in the north across all regions, and there is evidence they will continue spreading into new areas, French said. This fire behavior means that the forests and landscape of the future are going to be different, but scientists currently do not have enough information to predict their outcomes. 

Residents of these areas worry that their lifestyles will have to change, according to French. Fishing and hunting are important in Alaska, but ecosystem changes can put the industries in jeopardy. 

“I think there is [fear],” French said. “People who live in Alaska are very aware of the fact that it is changing, and they are a bit afraid of what it means for the land they live in.”

Follow the movement of the fires here

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