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Scientists Are Worried About ‘Zombie Fires’ Ravaging the Arctic

The remnants of record forest fires across Siberia and Alaska from last year continue to burn underground and are expected to reignite.
May 28, 2020, 12:30pm
Zombie Fire Greeland
Photo of wildfire in Greenland in 2019 courtesy NASA

Last year, areas in the Arctic region like Siberia, Alaska and Greenland were ravaged by record blazes after temperatures shot up to an unusually high level. Now, as the summer season returns, it brings with it heatwaves and also the possibility of dormant forest fires known as “zombie fires" being reignited. These refer to the remnants of the unprecedented forest fires that occurred last year that continue to smoulder underground, and are expected to burst into flames as temperatures rise.

“We may see a cumulative effect of last year’s fire season in the Arctic which will feed into the upcoming season, and could lead to large-scale and long-term fires across the same region once again,” Mark Parrington, a senior scientist and wildfire expert at the European Union's Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS) told AFP. These hotspots are yet to be confirmed with ground measurements, but scientists say they mainly lie in areas that were the most affected by these fires exactly a year ago. The fires may leave us facing risks by triggering melting of permafrost layers, thus releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, destabilising glaciers and causing a rise in sea levels. This could also release methane gas caught in the ice.

In June 2019, the hottest recorded summer in 150 years, these fires released an estimated 50 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, which is equal to Sweden’s annual emission rate. They also led to tremendous congestion by generating vast amounts of soot in the air. Last year’s blazes mainly occurred because parts of Siberia and Alaska were up to 10 degrees Celsius warmer than they usually are. Climatologists even said that an area of around 100,000 football pitches went up in flames. Temperatures in Greenland had accelerated melting of the island's kilometres-thick ice sheet, resulting in a net loss of 600 billion tonnes of ice mass for the year—accounting for about 40 percent of total sea level rise in 2019.

Now, the trend of rising temperatures continues with Europe facing its hottest summers in April and May, which has led scientists to believe that forest fires will become even more frequent.

“There has been tremendous warmth in the Arctic that will have led to a lot of drying, making the peat soils ripe to burn,” says Mike Waddington, an expert on watershed ecosystems at McMaster University in Canada. Alaska is also facing a similar problem. “Fire managers noted increasing occurrences where fires survive the cold and wet boreal winter months by smouldering, and re-emerged in the subsequent spring,” the Alaska Fire Science Consortium, a group of four universities and research institutes, reported in their Spring 2020 newsletter. Since 2005, scientists in Alaska have confirmed 39 such “holdover fires”.

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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.