Huge Wildfires In The Arctic And Far North Send A Planetary Warning

Huge Wildfires In The Arctic And Far North Send A Planetary Warning Smoke from wildfires in Siberia drifts east toward Canada and the U.S. on July 30, 2019. NASA

The planet’s far North is burning. This summer, over 600 wildfires have consumed more than 2.4 million acres of forest across Alaska. Fires are also raging in northern Canada. In Siberia, choking smoke from 13 million acres – an area nearly the size of West Virginia – is blanketing towns and cities.

Fires in these places are normal. But, as studies here at the University of Alaska’s International Arctic Research Center show, they are also abnormal.

My colleagues and I are examining the complex relationships between warming climate, increasing fire and shifting patterns of vegetation. Using locally focused climate data and models from the Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning, the research group I help coordinate, we are finding evidence that is deeply worrying – not just for those of us who live within the fires’ pall of smoke, but for the world.

Recent fires are too frequent, intense and severe. They are reducing older-growth forest in favor of young vegetation, and pouring more carbon into the atmosphere at a time when carbon dioxide concentrations are setting new records.

Vast sub-Arctic forests

The boreal or taiga ecosystem, a swath of northern forest that covers 17% of the globe’s land area, is adapted to fire. It has been burning regularly for thousands of years. This vast landscape is mostly free of human roads, rail lines, power lines and cities. Blazes often spread until the wind changes and the rain falls.

Here in central Alaska, our spindly spruce trees open resinous cones to jump-start new seedlings when the parent tree is scorched. Fast-growing fireweed and other flowers cover recent burn scars. Soon afterward come wild blueberries, willows and birch and aspen trees that shoot up from still-living stumps and roots. Eventually flammable conifers take over again.

Typically, the cycle resumes about every 200 years. But today the cycles are about 25% shorter than in the past, and that changes everything.

The overall increase in burning can be hard to detect and measure because of enormous natural variability. This summer’s fires in Alaska were driven by an intense early-season heat wave. The relationship between hot dry weather and fire is clear. Climate change is causing an equally clear trend toward earlier springs and longer, hotter summers.

However, our state also has some cooler, wetter summers when little or no smoke chokes the air. It isn’t always easy to tell the difference between natural year-to-year fluctuations and ominous long-term shifts.

Huge Wildfires In The Arctic And Far North Send A Planetary Warning Boreal forests stretch across the Northern Hemisphere from Alaska to Siberia. Mark Baldwin-Smith/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

A blazing North

Nonetheless, shifts are occurring – driven by the unprecedented warming that we are seeing in Alaska. July 2019 now stands as the hottest month ever recorded in the state.

Many of us, including climate researchers, land managers, ecologists, meteorologists, rural and indigenous residents and fire experts, have been collaborating, studying this issue, gathering data, creating simulations and computer models, using satellite imagery and getting outdoors to measure exactly what is happening. In Alaska, state and federal agencies work together to monitor and manage fires through the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center and deploy firefighters to the front lines – including a record number of smoke-jumpers this year.

The evidence shows that overall, fires in the far North are becoming bigger, hotter and more frequent. Older conifers are losing ground to younger deciduous trees, altering whole ecosystems. Torched trees are releasing carbon, along with soils rich in dead plant matter that are burning more deeply than in the past. As these releases fuel further warming, climate change is causing more climate change, which affects the entire planet.

Scenes from Alaska’s 2019 wildfire season.

Too close for comfort

In Fairbanks, where I live, the human impacts of this summer’s fires have been obvious. As lightning triggered blazes statewide in late June, the Shovel Creek Fire sprang up on the western outskirts of town. Air quality rapidly deteriorated to “hazardous.” Two neighborhoods were evacuated, sending residents to stay with friends or hole up in my children’s school. Displaced sled dog teams were housed at the local fairgrounds.

On some days in June and July the smoke in Fairbanks was so thick that my neighbor, who has asthma, had to wear a respirator mask. Another friend who has heart trouble had to take refuge in a small conference room at the hospital that was offered as a filtered-air safety zone.

Shouldn’t these fires be prevented, and extinguished when they occur? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. First, the cost of firefighting across huge regions of the Arctic and sub-Arctic would be astronomical, as Russian officials have argued in response to public demands for action to control wildfires in Siberia.

Second, putting out fires now leaves that much more highly flammable fuel on the landscape for next year or the year after – a problem that many blame for catastrophic fires in other states. Fire managers in Alaska, in partnership with land owners, instead have set priorities for firefighting. Lands are grouped in four categories: limited, modified, full and critical. By far the largest fraction is classified “limited,” meaning that fires in these areas are monitored but allowed to burn freely where they don’t threaten lives or known resources.

But when fires threaten homes and lives, they are fought fiercely. After tireless efforts by fire crews from Alaska and the Lower 48, evacuated Fairbanks residents received an all-clear on July 10. People went home, and there were no injuries.

August brought rains to dampen our local fairgrounds, which were finally being used for family fun rather than housing displaced pets. I haven’t heard much complaining. Wet weather has shown up on time here, and we’re grateful. But we realize that other Arctic regions are still burning, and that fire is more than just a local problem for all of us.

About The Author

Nancy Fresco, SNAP Coordinator, Research Faculty, University of Alaska Fairbanks

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know

by Joseph Romm
0190866101The essential primer on what will be the defining issue of our time, Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know® is a clear-eyed overview of the science, conflicts, and implications of our warming planet. From Joseph Romm, Chief Science Advisor for National Geographic's Years of Living Dangerously series and one of Rolling Stone's "100 people who are changing America," Climate Change offers user-friendly, scientifically rigorous answers to the most difficult (and commonly politicized) questions surrounding what climatologist Lonnie Thompson has deemed "a clear and present danger to civilization.". Available On Amazon

Climate Change: The Science of Global Warming and Our Energy Future second edition Edition

by Jason Smerdon
0231172834This second edition of Climate Change is an accessible and comprehensive guide to the science behind global warming. Exquisitely illustrated, the text is geared toward students at a variety of levels. Edmond A. Mathez and Jason E. Smerdon provide a broad, informative introduction to the science that underlies our understanding of the climate system and the effects of human activity on the warming of our planet.Mathez and Smerdon describe the roles that the atmosphere and ocean play in our climate, introduce the concept of radiation balance, and explain climate changes that occurred in the past. They also detail the human activities that influence the climate, such as greenhouse gas and aerosol emissions and deforestation, as well as the effects of natural phenomena.  Available On Amazon

The Science of Climate Change: A Hands-On Course

by Blair Lee, Alina Bachmann
194747300XThe Science of Climate Change: A Hands-On Course uses text and eighteen hands-on activities to explain and teach the science of global warming and climate change, how humans are responsible, and what can be done to slow or stop the rate of global warming and climate change. This book is a complete, comprehensive guide to an essential environmental topic. Subjects covered in this book include: how molecules transfer energy from the sun to warm the atmosphere, greenhouse gases, the greenhouse effect, global warming, the Industrial Revolution, the combustion reaction, feedback loops, the relationship between weather and climate, climate change, carbon sinks, extinction, carbon footprint, recycling, and alternative energy. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.

 

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook-icontwitter-iconrss-icon

 Get The Latest By Email

{emailcloak=off}

EVIDENCE

How Climate Change Affects Wildfires
by NBC News
NYU environmental studies professor David Kanter explains how climate change is creating the perfect conditions for…
Warning of 'Untold Human Suffering,' Over 11,000 Scientists From Around the World Declare Climate Emergency
Warning of Untold Human Suffering, Over 11,000 Scientists From Around the World Declare Climate Emergency
by Julia Conley
"Scientists have a culture of reticence when it comes to making statements like this, but the emergency is rapidly…
New Land Height Metric Raises Sea Level Rise Risk
New Land Height Metric Raises Sea Level Rise Risk
by Tim Radford
Millions of us now live in danger: we could be at risk from future high tides and winds, says a new approach to…
The Science Of Drought Is Complex But The Message On Climate Change Is Clear
The Science Of Drought Is Complex But The Message On Climate Change Is Clear
by Ben Henley, et al
The issue of whether Australia’s current drought is caused by climate change has been seized on by some media…
Understanding Natural Climate Cycles
by NOVA PBS
The climate has changed on a schedule for millennia.
"Climate Predictions and Projections" by Jim Hurrell (Climate Change Symposium)
by Jim Hurrell
Professor Jim Hurrell presents "Climate Predictions and Projections in the Coming Decades: Uncertainty due to Natural…
Understanding Climate Change Science On Oceans And The Cryosphere
by CBC Nova Scotia
The United Nations panel dedicated to reviewing the science of climate change recently released a dense new report…
Where's The Proof In Science?
Where's The Proof In Science?
by Geraint Lewis
One word is rarely spoken or printed in science and that word is “proof”. In fact, science has little to do with…

LATEST VIDEOS

Debate Over Pipelines Clouds Concern For Climate Change
by Global News
Climate experts are warning that Canada shouldn't ignore the wildfire crisis in California
How Climate Change Affects Wildfires
by NBC News
NYU environmental studies professor David Kanter explains how climate change is creating the perfect conditions for…
Rice Bowl Of Malaysia Threatened By Climate Change
by The Star Online
Kedah is known as the country’s “Rice Bowl,” and it is especially suitable for the growing of the grain.
Maine Cow's Seaweed Diet Research Could Help Climate Change
by News Center Maine
Research in Maine will measure the methane released by cows who have been fed a seaweed diet.
How Europe is Tackling Climate Change
by Bloomberg Markets and Finance
In this week’s “Commodity-In-Chief” on “Bloomberg Commodities Edge”, Alix Steel sits down with Frans Timmermans, the…
Sea Levels Are Rising And These Places May Perish
by Business Standard
India's financial capital Mumbai, one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the world, is at risk of…
Effects Of Climate Change In Asia
by CGTN
All around the world, sea levels are rising and oceans are becoming warmer. Longer and more intense droughts are…
Labor Can Tackle Climate Change While Creating Decent Jobs
by Sky News Australia
Labor MP Clare O'Neil says Anthony Albanese’s vision statement in Perth on Tuesday gave “so much encouragement about…

LATEST ARTICLES

Debate Over Pipelines Clouds Concern For Climate Change
by Global News
Climate experts are warning that Canada shouldn't ignore the wildfire crisis in California
How Climate Change Affects Wildfires
by NBC News
NYU environmental studies professor David Kanter explains how climate change is creating the perfect conditions for…
California Is Living America's Dystopian Future
California Is Living America's Dystopian Future
by Stephanie LeMenager
The Golden State is on fire, which means that an idea of American utopia is on fire, too.
Rice Bowl Of Malaysia Threatened By Climate Change
by The Star Online
Kedah is known as the country’s “Rice Bowl,” and it is especially suitable for the growing of the grain.
Maine Cow's Seaweed Diet Research Could Help Climate Change
by News Center Maine
Research in Maine will measure the methane released by cows who have been fed a seaweed diet.
How Europe is Tackling Climate Change
by Bloomberg Markets and Finance
In this week’s “Commodity-In-Chief” on “Bloomberg Commodities Edge”, Alix Steel sits down with Frans Timmermans, the…
Climate Change Means We Can't Keep Living And Working In Glass Houses
Climate Change Means We Can't Keep Living and Working In Glass Houses
by David Coley
How do we go about designing buildings today for tomorrow’s weather? As the world warms and extreme weather becomes…
Sea Levels Are Rising And These Places May Perish
by Business Standard
India's financial capital Mumbai, one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the world, is at risk of…