‘Nothing left to burn’: Wildfires blaze through the Arctic

Smoke from hundreds of wildfires has darkened skies over the Alaskan interior this summer with the state experiencing its fastest start to the fire season on record amid hot and dry conditions. Tens of thousands of lightning strikes ignited the majority of active fires. By late August, more than 1.2 million hectares (three million acres) had burned across the state – roughly triple what is seen in an average year but no longer unusual in a warming world.

With climate change raising Arctic temperatures faster than the global average, wildfires are shifting poleward where the flames blaze through boreal forest and tundra and release vast amounts of greenhouse gases from the carbon-rich organic soil.

Arctic wildfires that sparked above the 66th parallel north unleashed an estimated 16 million tonnes of carbon in 2021 – roughly equal to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of Peru.

Though the charred boreal forests and tundra still represent just 3% of the global area burned each year, the richness of their soils means those wildfires account for roughly 15% of the world’s annual carbon emissions from fires — and that number is growing.

High-latitude wildfires were responsible for a greater share of total global fire emissions in 2021 than in any year since monitoring began in 2003, releasing nearly one-third of last year’s total carbon emissions from wildfires.

Fires in the lowest latitudes, between 60 degrees South and 30 degrees North, including those deliberately set with deforestation or agricultural clearing, accounted for slightly more than half of all emissions. Those between 30 and 60 degrees North, or roughly between North Africa and Scandinavia, accounted for the remaining 18%.

Wildfires are a natural part of the Arctic tundra and boreal forest ecosystems. Some pine trees even rely on the heat from fire to open their cones so seeds can be dispersed. But climate change is altering the frequency and scale of Arctic boreal wildfires in recent years.

The polar jet stream that normally circulates air between the mid and northern latitudes is slowing down, and at times getting stuck for days or weeks at a time, leading to punishing bouts of hot and dry air. In turn, heatwaves are increasingly gripping the Arctic.

In March 2022, the Arctic as a whole was more than 3˚C (6˚F) warmer than the 1979 to 2000 average, with records broken in Norway as temperatures surged more than 30°C (54°F) above the normal for that time of year.

Though the Arctic has been warming roughly four times as fast as the rest of the world, “it’s the extremes that matter for fire – droughts, heatwaves, lightning storms”, said Earth system scientist Sander Veraverbeke at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “That’s what’s been happening in Siberia.”

In June 2020, the Russian town of Verkhoyansk, located along the 67th parallel, registered a new Arctic temperature record of 38°C (100°F).

Lightning, which ignites most northern wildfires, has also increased in the high latitudes. Alaska saw a 17% rise in lightning strikes between the mid-1980s and 2015.

“Some places have had astounding increases,” said Randi Jandt, a fire ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, noting during the same period summer lightning activity in northcentral Alaska increased by roughly 600%. That is linked to the warmer air in the US state, where the average temperature in fire-prone areas of Alaska has risen by more than 2°C (3.6°F) since 1979.

Lightning-ignited fires have more than doubled in Alaska and the Northwest Territories since 1975.

All three of these trends – more frequent extreme temperatures, slowing air circulation, and increasing lightning strikes – are expected to escalate in coming years, leading to an even more worrying future where northern wildfires could challenge the world’s efforts to rein in climate-warming emissions.

Wildfires in North America’s boreal forests could end up releasing nearly 12 billion cumulative tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050, equivalent to roughly one-third of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2021.

Greenhouse gas emissions released during a wildfire are not even the greatest concern. Scientists estimate there are 1.5 trillion metric tonnes of carbon stored in the world’s northern permafrost – more than twice what is already in the atmosphere.

Fire makes permafrost, ground that remains frozen year-round, more vulnerable to thaw as it strips away upper insulating layers of vegetation and soils. When that happens, ancient organic materials – dead plants and animals – begin to decompose, releasing their carbon.

“It’s a one-two punch” of emissions, said Sue Natali, also of Woodwell Climate Research Center.

But these post-fire permafrost emissions have been left out of climate models. Measurements rely on long-term field observations, which are hard to get in remote and frigid areas. Severed ties with Russia, after its February invasion of Ukraine, may also hurt data collection. About half of all Arctic landmass is in Russia.

Copernicus’ Global Fire Assimilation System also does not include post-fire emissions. This means the world is likely underestimating the effect of high-latitude fires on the world’s carbon cycle.

“This is a source of greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere that can further contribute to climate warming that we hadn’t really been … counting on,” Natali said.

While the rapid spike in Arctic wildfire activity is alarming for scientists, the global area that burns each year shrank by about 25% between the late 1990s and 2015, according to a 2017 study in the journal Science.

Africa is largely driving this downward trend. New pastures and roads have created fire breaks that stop flames from advancing through the grasslands, and northern savannas are transitioning into tropical forest. This has also led to a decline in global fire emissions since monitoring began in 2003, though new regional emissions hotspots have emerged, such as in the Arctic and western North America. And people are still intentionally burning the world’s dense tropical ecosystems.

Every year, farmers burn large swaths of Southeast Asia’s carbon-rich peatlands and the Amazon rainforest to clear agricultural land, resulting in big emissions. A 2021 study in the journal Nature found  the fires in the Brazilian Amazon were releasing about 1.5 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

Not all emissions are the same, either. Total emissions from grasslands remain higher simply because “much more land burns, even though the fuel is less dense”, said Christine Wiedinmyer, a research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder. But grasses also regrow quickly, locking in the carbon that was released when they burned. The charred boreal, however, might take more than a century to return and sequester the carbon lost. Plus, fires set by farmers to clear land are much easier to control than raging infernos in remote, northern ecosystems.

Still, the Arctic boreal cannot burn forever. After three bad wildfire years in Siberia, eventually “there is nothing left to burn,” said Veraverbeke. “Maybe that is a little bit hopeful.”

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