The Arctic is suffering its worst wildfire season on record, with huge blazes in Greenland, Siberia and Alaska producing plumes of smoke that can be seen from space. The Arctic region has recorded its hottest June ever. Since the start of that month, more than 100 wildfires have burned in the Arctic circle. In Russia, 11 of 49 regions are experiencing wildfires. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Nations’ weather and climate monitoring service, has called the Arctic fires “unprecedented.”
The largest blazes, believed to have been caused by lightning, are located in Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk and Buryatia. Winds carrying smoke have caused air quality to plummet in Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia. In Greenland, the multi-day Sisimiut blaze, first detected on 10 July, came during an unusually warm and dry stretch in which melting on the vast Greenland ice sheet commenced a month earlier than usual. In Alaska, as many as 400 fires have been reported. The climatologist Rick Thomas estimated the total area burned in the state this season as of Wednesday morning at 2.06m acres. Mark Parrington, the senior scientist with the Climate Change Service and Atmosphere Monitoring Service for Europe’s Copernicus Earth Observation Programme, described the extent of the smoke as “impressive” and posted an image of a ring of fire and smoke across much of the region.
Thomas Smith, an environmental geographer at the London School of Economics, told the USA Today fires of such magnitude have not been seen in the 16-year satellite record. The fires are not merely the result of surface ignition of dry vegetation: in some cases, the underlying peat has caught fire. Such fires can last for days or months and produce significant amounts of greenhouse gases. “These are some of the biggest fires on the planet, with a few appearing to be larger than 100,000 hectares,” Smith said. “The amount of [carbon dioxide] emitted from Arctic circle fires in June 2019 is larger than all of the CO2 released from Arctic circle fires in the same month from 2010 through to 2018 put together.” In June alone, the WMO said, Arctic fires emitted 50 megatonnes of CO2, equal to Sweden’s total annual emissions.
Credit: Edward Helmore for The Guardian, 26 July 2019.