There Have Never Been This Many Fires in the Far Northern Arctic

There Have Never Been This Many Fires in the Far Northern Arctic
Far northern wildfires from 2003 to 2020. The black vertical line denotes where the Arctic Circle is, and the data depicted is from the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service. (Graphic: Dr Thomas Smith, Other)

The Arctic is normally a cold, cold place. But lately, due to the climate crisis, it’s literally been on fire. A new analysis took a deeper look at the recent Arctic fires to paint a clearer picture of where exactly all this burning is happening.

To briefly recap, Siberia has seen a wildfire season from hell. Fires in June released more carbon dioxide than Portugal does all year, and findings published last week show the climate crisis made record heat that has gripped the region 600 times more likely.

While it’s clear that these fires are wild and scary, it turns out they are even more abnormal than scientists previously thought. Check out the animation above, which shows wildfire activity in May and June from 2003 to 2020 plotted by latitude. Pay close attention to what happens to the higher latitudes (the far right end of the x axis) in the years 2019 and 2020.

Fires in the far north jump up dramatically, particularly this year. May and June of 2020 saw a shocking ten times more fires in the tundra landscapes in the northernmost regions of the Arctic ” the ones so cold and high up that trees can’t grow there ” compared to the average of the preceding 15 years. The analysis is based on existing data from NASA, the Copernicus Climate Change Service, the European Union’s science commission, and the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre and was conducted by Thomas Smith, a wildfire expert at the London School of Economics.

There’s been tons of documentation of the Arctic burning this season, but there hasn’t been a deep look at which ecosystems of the Arctic have caught fire. The region isn’t homogenous. Its lower latitudes are home to coniferous forests, boreal forests, and taiga, all of which are hospitable to trees. As the animation above shows, those areas have been seeing increased burning, too. That’s awful enough on its own.

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But in 2019 and 2020, the growth in fires in the Arctic’s ice and permafrost-filled northern latitudes above the geographical treeline is jarring and extremely worrisome given that those areas simply don’t burn easily.

“Unfortunately the analysis points to extremely anomalous fire activity that is either a sign of an extreme couple of years … or perhaps more alarming a potential step-change shift in regime,” Smith told Gizmodo in an email.

Smith wanted to see what the spatial distribution of the recent fires in the Arctic was because he believed that could tell us more about how abnormal these fires are than merely looking at how many fires are occurring in the Arctic as a whole. The more in-depth analysis shows there’s been a huge uptick in the amount of fires seen on Arctic peatland ” roughly half of the recent fires in the Arctic took place on peat soil. That type of soil is rich in carbon and poses a major threat to the climate.

The swift changes in the Arctic’s tundra landscapes is absolutely terrifying. These ecosystems are usually too cold and wet and full of ice to catch flame. But lately, freakish extreme heat waves have ravaged these landscapes, pushing temperatures above 37.8 degrees Celsius, thawing permafrost and melting ice. If these areas keep catching fire, ecosystems could change abruptly and dramatically, and millions of people in Siberia could see their homes and infrastructure destroyed.

The resulting ecological devastation could reach far beyond the Arctic’s limits. There’s some 1,600 billion metric tons of organic carbon trapped under Arctic permafrost, which is more than twice the amount of carbon that’s currently in our atmosphere. Unleashing all that carbon through fires would completely devastate the Earth’s climate.