Eternal flames

Daily Parse | This year’s wildfire season in the Arctic was horrific. Scientists suggest that is because last year’s fires never actually went out

Coming soon to the sky near you (📸: Nasa / Katie Jepson)

Kevin McGwin

Traditionally, wildfires break out for one of two reasons: either humans – intentionally or unintentionally – set them, or they occur naturally.

This year, scientists studying wildfires in the Arctic have popularised a third, supernatural-sounding, cause: zombie fires. Technically, this type of fire is known as an underground smouldering fire, and is, in fact, a fire from a previous year that never went out.

The term came about after scientists the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, an EU agency, registered big fires in Siberia in May, two months earlier than normal. They were mostly in areas that burned last summer, which led them to suggest that this year’s fires were actually last year’s fires that had survived the winter by burning peat and other underground material. Once conditions are dry enough, the fires take hold aboveground and pick up where they left off.

When theorised in May, Cams reckoned that this would lead to a “cumulative” effect that would feed into the 2020 fire season, causing a second consecutive year of large-scale, long-term fires in the region.

As is turns out, this year was not just bad but worse than anyone has ever seen: records have only been kept since 2003, but this year’s fires well exceed the damage and carbon-dioxide emissions caused by last year’s record-setting fires.

Between January and August, Arctic fires released 244 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to Cams. The full-year figure for 2019 was 182 million tonnes. Prior to that, the highest amount was 110 million tonnes, in 2004.

Much of this year’s damage was done in Russia. There, the fires, which coincided with a heatwave in Siberia that saw temperatures approach 40°C (104°F), are estimated to have released 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, more than the annual emissions of many mid-sized countries.

According to that country’s wildfire monitoring agency, there were more than 18,000 separate fires in its far east; a total of nearly 14 million hectares burned. Other parts of the region saw fewer fires than normal, but regions that were downwind of the Siberian blazes still suffered from them. In addition to being a public-health issue, scientists suggest the smoke from Arctic fires could exacerbate global warming if the soot from the smoke settles on ice.

Perhaps more by the figures than by the creation of a catchy name for the phenomenon, the scientific community has taken note; the topic was editorialised about in recent issues of both Science and Nature, the world’s two premier journals.

Local and regional groups are also on the case. The Gwich’in Council International, for example, is leading two Arctic Council projects related to the issue. One of them, being carried out under the auspices of its Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group, is looking for ways for Arctic countries to pool resources and co-ordinate training, adding wildfires to a list of cross-border threats that includes oil spills and accidents at sea.

Where there is fire, there may very well be a reason for closer co-operation.



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