Uncontrolled Arctic Fires Spread Through Region

The Arctic Circle, home to some of the coldest places on Earth, is on fire. Intense wildfires are wreaking havoc in parts of Russia, Greenland and Alaska as the region faces yet another record-breaking heatwave. Scientists are now warning that these fires may become a regular occurrence, a grim reminder of the consequences the world will face as global temperatures continue to rise to unprecedented levels. 

For several months, regions like Siberia have been suffering under extremely high temperatures and a relentless heat-wave. A recent study revealed that throughout the months of March, April and May, the Arctic region saw an average temperature that was nearly 10°C (18°F) higher than normal. According to Dr. Robert Rohde of Berkeley Earth, Russia alone experienced an average temperature anomaly of nearly 6°C (11°F) above normal between January and April of 2020. 

“That’s not only a new record anomaly for Russia,” says Rohde. “That’s the largest January to April anomaly ever seen in any country’s national average.”

Late last month, the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, home to around 1,500 people, made headlines when it reached an all-time high of 38°C (100.4°F), making it the hottest day ever recorded in the Arctic.

While wildfires are common during this time of year, the extreme heat-wave in the Arctic has only made matters worse. Dry surface conditions and record-high temperatures have made it increasingly difficult to contain the fast spread and intensity of these fires. According to Russia’s forest fire agency, at least 3.5 million acres are still burning as wildfires continue to sweep across the region at alarming rates. 

“These fires are a direct consequence of a warming planet due to human-induced climate change,” says Alex Olivera, from the Center for Biological Diversity. “This has extreme global consequences as more greenhouse gases will be released into the atmosphere and thus amplify global warming.”

Within the last month, fires in Siberia released 59 megatonnes of carbon dioxide, breaking the previous record set in June of 2019. This figure alone is greater than the amount of carbon that countries such as Norway, Ireland and Portugal release within a single year. 

Arctic fires in particular have proven to be more devastating than those in other parts of the world. Fires in the sparsely populated regions of Siberia have been fueled by dense boreal forests and carbon-rich peatlands, which produce more smoke and carbon dioxide than other forms of vegetation when burned. The boreal forests that encircle the Arctic are known for being incredibly rich in carbon, making them a crucial carbon sink that could dramatically affect global carbon cycles and contribute to climate change.  

However, scientists say that high carbon dioxide emissions aren’t the only area of concern for these fires. With temperatures continuing to reach all-time records, huge amounts of permafrost are thawing and exposing previously frozen and decomposed organic matter. Yvette Griffiths, with environmental NGO Ninth Wave Global, warns that fires, along with increasing temperatures, will pose a new challenge in efforts to contain greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.

“Fires in this area will lead to an increase in surface temperatures and the melting rate of permafrost, which acts as a crucial carbon and methane storage,” says Griffiths. “The release of potent greenhouse gases like methane will have significant incremental effects on global temperatures.”

The melting of permafrost, fueled by both intense wildfires and rising temperatures, lands itself into a vicious cycle of ongoing global warming trends. With higher temperatures thawing permafrost and amplifying fires, the Earth will see even higher levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases which will ultimately lead to warmer temperatures around the world. The continuation of this rapid feedback loop has experts concerned about its consequences, not just on the Arctic, but also the rest of the planet. 

For The Yucatan Times
Zachary Huang-Ogata

Zachary Huang-Ogata is a freelance writer specializing in science and the environment. His interests lie in sustainable resource management and corporate sustainability.