Why Are Arctic Fires So Dangerous?

The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere on Earth, causing tinder-dry forests and vast wildfires. We show how this emits huge amounts of CO2, leading to more warming. This feedback loop is doubled when Arctic fires thaw permafrost, releasing CO2 and methane.
Guide To Arctic Fires
Megafires in Canada’s Northwest Territories scorched 7 million acres of forest. Photo: © NASA/Peter Griffith

The Arctic: One of the Coldest Spots on Earth… Until Now

Forest fires in the Arctic? There must be some mistake. The Arctic has always been one of Earth’s coldest regions, characterized by the Greenland ice sheet and glaciers, widespread snow, sea ice, permafrost, chilly tundra and freezing temperatures. Much of it used to be part of Earth’s cryosphere – the frozen water part of the planet, whose icy temperatures play such an important role in the climate system.

However, as the effects of global warming have taken hold, the Arctic has experienced three decades of abnormally high temperatures, followed by a series of intense heatwaves across the region. These were the main causes of the disastrous fires which raged throughout the Arctic Circle, during the summer of 2019.

The results were entirely predictable. The fires released huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, which acted as climate feedbacks – boosting the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere. They caused massive clouds of partially combusted particles, which blackened the air across millions of square kilometers and hastened the thawing of vast expanses of permafrost across the circumpolar Arctic. These consequences will have a seriously adverse effect on climate change and the environment.

Climate Change In The Arctic

At present, the Arctic is warming twice as fast compared to the rest of the world. 1 Since the 1970s, the average temperature of the region has risen by 2.3°C. 2 As a result, air and water temperatures are rising, Arctic sea ice is at its lowest extent, and melting of the Greenland ice sheet continues apace. Indirect effects of this polar warming, have included record-breaking wildfires in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia. 3 In addition, the danger of methane emissions from the Arctic region from the thawing of permafrost and methane clathrates, remains an ever-present threat. 4

Arctic Temperatures Are Unprecedented In 44,000 Years

The decade 1995–2005 was the warmest decade in the circumpolar Arctic since at least the 17th century, with temperatures an extraordinary 2°C (3.6 °F) higher than the period 1951–1990. 5 Temperatures in some regions within the Arctic Circle have risen even faster. In Alaska and western Canada, for instance, they increased by 3-4°C (5.4 to 7.2°F). 6 According to one scientific study, published in 2013, temperatures in the region are higher now than they have been for 44,000 years, perhaps even for 120,000 years. 7 8

Since then, global temperatures have broken all records. The past 5 years (2014-2018) have been the five warmest years on record, and the 20 warmest years have all occurred during the past 22 years. 9

A Washington Post analysis has found that parts of Yakutia in eastern Siberia have warmed by more than 3°C since preindustrial times – roughly three times the global average. 10

Temperatures in the Krasnoyarsk region of Eastern Siberia are typically between 58- and 65-degrees Fahrenheit in the summer 11 but lately, temperatures have been recorded in the high 80s Fahrenheit. 12

A number of experts have voiced serious concerns over rising temperatures in the Arctic. Mark Parrington, senior scientist at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), says: “temperatures in the Arctic have been increasing at a much faster rate than the global average, and warmer conditions encourage fires to grow and persist once they have been ignited.” 13

How Do Arctic Wildfires Start?

According to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, most wildfires are caused by lightning strikes. In fact, the 2014 and 2015 fires coincided with a record number of lightning ignitions. The danger of lightning-induced fires has increased markedly over the past decade or so in the circumpolar Arctic, due to hotter than average temperatures causing tinderbox conditions. In many parts, the dry ground contains exposed, thawed, dried peat – a substance with high carbon content, which burns and smolders for ages, releasing significant amounts of CO2. 14

Arctic Fires Shock Experts

The year 2019 has broken all records for wildfires, particularly in the Arctic Circle. Fire in the Arctic began in June 2019, after low rainfall and persistently high temperatures had created tinderbox conditions across much of the region’s boreal forests. The following month, July 2019, was the hottest month ever recorded on the planet. Not surprisingly, the fires spread. In total, during June and July, there were more than 100 severe fires across the region.

On July 24, NASA satellites captured images of a thick cloud of smoke emanating from Siberian fires, which covered more than 5 million square kilometres (larger than the size of the European Union), of central and northern Asia, blocking sunlight and impacting air quality. 15

By September, fires in Siberia and northern parts of Russia had destroyed 43,000 square kilometres (17,000 sq mi) of taiga. This figure constitutes roughly 61 percent of Arctic fire damage.) 16 In Canada, 18,000 square km were lost, while in Alaska – with temperatures reaching 32°C – 9,700 square kilometres were destroyed. In Greenland, on the last day of July, a record-breaking 56.5 percent of the country’s ice sheet was showing signs of melting, while fires were burning at Qeqqata Kommunia and Sisimiut.

Fires are not uncommon in Arctic forests. In fact, wildfires, typically ignited by lightning strikes, are a regular annual occurrence during July and August. What has made 2019 so different, at least for those regions affected by fire, is (a) three decades of recorded temperatures that are way above average: temperatures actually peaked at 8-10°C warmer than the average from 1981 to 2010. 17 and (b) recent heatwaves that drove temperatures up to 32°C (89°F). Together, these conditions created the tinder-dry forest floors that, once ignited, burned more intensely and for longer than anything yet seen in the Arctic Circle. 18

“Temperatures in the Arctic have been increasing at a much faster rate than the global average, and warmer conditions encourage fires to grow and persist once they have been ignited.” says Mark Parrington, senior scientist at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), overseen by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF).

ECMWF works with the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) and other bodies furnishing satellite data.

Why arctic fires are so dangerous
Summer fires in the Arctic are warming the ground and helping to thaw the peaty permafrost below. Locked into the carbon-rich permafrost is a massive amount of semi-decomposed organic material. And if the permafrost thaws then so does the organic carbon, which gives off carbon dioxide (or sometimes methane) as it completes its decomposition. Both carbon dioxide and methane are prime causes of global warming, which is what’s causing the fires in the first place. Sometimes, intense surface heat can ignite the layers of sub-surface peat. This can cause massive underground fires that spread and smoulder for months, emitting even more carbon dioxide as well as unhealthy particulates. Image: Brad Lidell/USFWS (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Why Are Arctic Fires Are So Dangerous?

How much carbon is at risk, in total? According to a 2003 report, published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the total carbon content of Russian forests in 2000, amounted to roughly 52 billion tons of carbon, of which 34 billion tons was from living phytomass (trees and shrubs), and 18 billion tons from forest litter (dead trees, leaves, and other surface waste).

The study also found that, each year, the Russian forests absorbed the equivalent of 600 million tons of carbon (via CO2) from the atmosphere (estimated to rise to 660 million tons per year by 2010), while emitting (as CO2) the equivalent of 100 million tons, through deforestation due to logging, wildfires, forest pests and diseases.

These carbon statistics are for the total forested area of Russia of about 8.9 million sq kms (3.4 million sq mi). The area of Siberian (Russian) forest which was destroyed by fires during the summer of 2019, represents roughly one half of one percent of all Russian forests. 19

The estimated CO2 emissions discharged by the 2019 Arctic fires, during June, July and the first 11 days of August, was a record-breaking 154 million tons. On a pro-rata basis, the Siberian blazes accounted for 94 million tons of this. This means that half of one percent of Russian forests – over the course of 72 days – emitted 94 percent of the CO2 which is normally emitted by the country’s entire forested land.

More worrying still, is the possibility we may not know the full story about the Siberian fires. According to Greenpeace Russia, a total of 131,000 sq kms (50,000 sq mi) of forest burned during 2019, up until August 5th. That’s roughly three times more than the 43,000 square kilometres which appears in the official estimates. As it happens, 90 percent of forest fires in Russia burned in the so-called “control zones” – isolated areas where local authorities are not obliged to take remedial action.

Whatever the exact figure experts at CAMS have calculated that, during the 30 days of June, the Arctic fires emitted more CO2 than the entire country of Sweden does in a full 12-month period. This will inevitably lead to an increase in global warming, and a continuing rise in Arctic temperatures, with unknown consequences. 20 16

  • The second reason, concerns the adverse impact the fires had on air pollution within the Arctic and further afield. Because scientists estimate that inside the fires’ thick plumes of smoke, were millions of tons of tiny, partially combusted aerosols, commonly called soot. Soot (whose major constituent is black carbon) falls into a category of atmospheric pollutants known as “particulate matter” (PM). Particulate matter consists of any microscopic particles (typically no bigger than the width of a human hair) of dust, soot, wood smoke, and the like, that have become suspended in the air. See also: Health Effects of Air Pollution.

They are particularly dangerous to humans because of the ease with which they can enter the lungs, bloodstream and brains, causing ill-health, disease and even death. Unfortunately, smoke from the fires blanketed much of Siberia, from Kazakhstan to the Bering Sea, with carbon monoxide and other pollutants.

The climax came in late July, when NASA captured imagery of a huge smoke blanket over Russia caused by the fires, via the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite on the Suomi NPP satellite. The smoke, carrying billions of tiny particles of soot extended across several million square kilometers of central and northern Asia.

“This is a global problem: fires in one region affect air quality in other parts of the world,” says Parrington at CAMS. Aside from monitoring the Russian smoke over Euro-Asia, CAMS tracked clouds of smoke from Alaska reaching as far south as the Great Lakes, as well as fires in Alberta resulting in red skies in Europe.

  • The third reason, is that black carbon can boost ice-melt in the Arctic. The point is, in addition to its serious effects on respiratory and circulatory health, black carbon is a positive climate feedback, because of its effect on the albedo of Arctic sea ice. By darkening the reflective white surface of the ice, the soot allows more heat to reach the polar surface, thus boosting polar temperatures, which melts more ice, which causes more warming, and so on.

    A significant amount of black carbon that falls onto snow and ice in the Arctic, comes from Asia, especially India.

According to one study, the melting effect of black carbon on Arctic snow and ice is more than three times greater than that of carbon dioxide. 21

Note however another study, which found that the decline in albedo in the Arctic was due mostly to melting ice, rather than pollution by black carbon. 22

  • The fourth reason why Arctic fires are so dangerous, is because the heat from the fires is warming the earth including the massive carbon reservoir stored as peat in the permafrost, a few feet below the surface. Permafrost – found mostly in the Arctic Circle – is reckoned to hold up to 1,600 gigatons of carbon, almost double the amount in the atmosphere. The boreal forests of Alaska, Canada and Russia sit on top of their own methane-rich permafrost, a significant proportion of which could end up in the atmosphere if temperatures continue to rise. The problem is, peat fires produce lots more carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) from the burning of carbon that has been locked in the ground for hundreds or thousands of years, as part of the slow carbon cycle.

Normally, in summer, the frozen peatlands are soggy enough to be fire-resistant, but now due to abnormally high temperatures they are drying out, even in winter! And once ignited, the carbon-rich peat can smoulder for months on end, releasing large amounts of CO2 back into the atmosphere and fuelling the warming feedback loop. Indeed, smouldering fires are the largest and longest-burning fires on Earth. They destroy essential peat land biomes and are responsible for 15 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. 23

More and more of these frozen peatlands are drying out and becoming highly flammable. Scientists are concerned that CO2 emissions from these fires will warm the atmosphere further, leading to a sequence of climate tipping points that could trigger runaway thawing of the permafrost. (see also: Why Are Methane Levels Rising?)

Thawing Of Permafrost Has Already Started

For the 5.5 million inhabitants in Russia’s permafrost zone, the new warm climate has literally undermined their homes as well as their livelihoods. Rivers are flooding, and entire housing estates are falling into them. The amount of farming land has halved, to just 120,000 acres. In Yakutia, a sizeable region in Eastern Siberia, numbers of livestock and reindeer have plunged 20 percent as the animals struggle to survive the loss of pastureland.

As the permafrost layer thaws, animals and plants frozen for thousands of years try to finish their partial decomposition, sending a steady flow of CO2 and other gases into the atmosphere – accelerating global warming even further.

Meanwhile, six time zones away (but still in Siberia) on the Yamal Peninsula jutting out into the Kara Sea, gaping craters have recently opened up in the tundra. Russian scientists believe they were caused by sudden explosions of methane gas freed by thawing permafrost.

“The permafrost is thawing so fast,” said Anna Liljedahl, an associate professor at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. “We scientists can’t keep up anymore.” 24

The Big Danger: A Twin Attack By CO2 Emissions & Arctic Fires

The big danger is a combination of global warming and forest fires. Here’s how things might happen.

(1) Global warming heats up the soil, causing microbes to break down the peat vegetation releasing large amounts of stored greenhouse gases (GHGs) like CO2 and methane. These GHGs then cause more warming, leading to more microbe activity, and so on.

(2) At the same time, another feedback loop starts up as Arctic fires become more common. These fires heat up the soil even faster than global warming, triggering even faster thawing of sub-surface peat layers. Worse still, the satellite data used to estimate GHG emissions from the fires cannot detect those that are smouldering below the ground, which could double or triple the eventual impact.

If global warming goes unchecked – the most pessimistic of four scenarios outlined by the IPCC in its Fifth Assessment Report (2014) – soil studies suggest that tens to hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon could be transferred from the permafrost carbon pool into the atmosphere. 25

Antarctica: A Continent of Ice
Antarctic Ice Sheet: How Fast is it Melting?


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