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Here's Why Alaska's Wildfires Are Really Bad News for Everyone

The state has already had its fifth worst wildfire season, and scientists worry about what impact the blazes are having on Alaska's carbon-rich permafrost.
Image via Reuters

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With more than 300 wildfires and nearly 4.5 million acres burned this year, 2015 is already Alaska's fifth largest fire season and on pace to be its largest ever.

Alaska is warming up twice as fast as the lower 48 states and projected to get 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit hotter by mid-century. Across the state, 2014 was the hottest on record and Barrow, the state's northernmost city, located in the Arctic Circle, saw its hottest May and June ever.


Make no mistake: intense forest fires are normal for the state, but the New Jersey-sized chunk that's burned so far this year "is a pretty amazing start" to the fire season, said Scott Rupp, a fire ecologist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

"We had record hot, dry conditions. We lost our snowpack, which was minimal in some parts of the state. There was little-to-no snow cover whatsoever [in others]," Rupp told VICE News. "That really set up the landscape to be quite conducive to burning."

Related: The Number of Wildfires in Alaska Has Doubled Since the1950s

Down the coast, too, fires have raged. In Canada, more than seven million acres have burned so far, above average for this time of year. Hundreds of other infernos are ablaze in Washington, Oregon, and California.

Bob Bolton, a research assistant professor at the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks, has seen the haze first-hand.

"We've been inundated with smoke much of the summer, or at least it feels like it," Bolton told VICE News. "People complain about the health effects or not being able to see a half mile down the road because it's just too smoky."

The number of large wildfires in the state has almost doubled since the 1950s, according to the climate science organization Climate Center. And, according to the National Climate Assessment, If global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, wildfires will burn double the amount of area in Alaska by 2050 and triple by 2100.


An increasingly fiery North could be especially consequential due to what lies underneath: permafrost, the icy soil which spans 85 percent of Alaska, half of Canada, and a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere. Made up of frozen organic matter, permafrost locks away a vast amount of greenhouse gasses — an estimated 1,700 to 1,850 gigatons of carbon, more than double what is currently in the atmosphere.

The top "active" layer of permafrost thaws and refreezes each year, with the deeper layer remaining frozen. Depending on the thaw, carbon dioxide or methane — which is 25 times more effective at trapping heat on a 100-year time scale — is released.

While nobody is projecting that most or all of the permafrost will melt, if enough does, the Earth could hit a key feedback loop. The more permafrost that thaws, the greater the amount of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere. With more heat trapping gases, temperatures rise, which leads to more permafrost melt.

The thaw is also challenging Alaskan infrastructure, much of it built on the semi-frozen soil. A 2007 study estimated that damage from climate change could add up to $6.1 billion to costs for public infrastructure by 2030, and as much as $7.6 billion by 2080.

"Thawing permafrost has huge impacts on roads. There's always a lot of road reconstruction and sinkholes occurring," Bolton told VICE News, noting the "waves in the rails" he can see when crossing a railroad track on his commute to work. "The [Alaska Department of Transportation] are backfilling with a whole bunch of gravel to keep the roads from collapsing."


Related: Climate Change Mght Be Causing These Huge Craters in Siberia

Located in the mid-interior of the state, Alaska's Boreal Forests are burning at rates unseen for 10,000 years. There, the forest floors are covered with a carbon-heavy, mossy layer of decaying plant matter called "duff," responsible for keeping the permafrost cool. Each scientist used their own comfortable simile — like a "sleeping bag or feather quilt," according to Rupp, a "big blanket" said Bolton. Regardless of the cleaver description, when fire races through, it's bad news for the frozen ground below it.

"You're basically burning some or all of that insulating layer off, which then allows for really rapid warming of that permafrost soil and a thawing," Rupp told VICE News. "There's a really rapid depth change in terms of the active layer."

After 2004's Boundary Fire, the biggest blaze during the largest wildfire season in Alaska's history, a study showed the active permafrost layer there deepened by four meters and could take more than a century to recover. In Alaska's tundra north, too, fire is increasing to heavy carbon consequences. The 2007 Anaktuvuk River Fire, the largest tundra fire ever, released as much carbon as the area had stored for the prior half century.

As temperatures rise, the type of vegetation able to survive there has shifted too. Isla Myers-Smith, a climate change scientist at the University of Edinburgh, has been tracking these changes.

"One of the concerns we have is shrubs growing to taller canopy heights, becoming more abundant on the landscape and sticking up above the snow layer. They're making that white snow surface darker and bringing more heat," Myers-Smith told VICE News. "And to bring it back to fire, with more shrubs in these tundra landscapes they're probably more likely to burn because shrubs have woody biomass and provide more fuel."

Alaska's 2004 fire season smashed records with 6.5 million acres burned. As 2015's totals quickly climb the charts, it remains to be seen whether the state is dealing with a season that's just bad — or historically unprecedented.

Follow Darren Ankrom on Twitter: @darrenankrom