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Why the Arctic Fires Are So Bad for the Planet (Aside from the Actual Flames)

The fires could create a feedback loop that only worsens the effects of climate change and leads to more fires.

by Alex Lubben
Aug 2 2019, 6:43pm

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Fires in the Arctic have been smoldering for nearly two months, spewing smoke into Siberian towns that can be seen from space. It's getting so bad that Russian President Vladimir Putin dispatched 2,700 military firefighters, along with 10 planes and 10 helicopters, to fight the flames.

The fires, unprecedented in size and intensity, not only threaten the ecosystem but also could create a feedback loop that only worsens the effects of climate change and leads to more fires.

It’s normal for fires to burn through Arctic ecosystems — but not ones this big or emitting this much carbon dioxide. So far this year, the fires have let loose more than 140 million metric tons, as much as Belgium emits in a year. As the fires burn, they also consume peat, or the degraded biomass that gives Scotch its distinctive taste and stores carbon. As that carbon gets released into the atmosphere, it only heats the planet more.

“There’s a heatwave in the Arctic region, and certainly that makes fires burn longer and larger,” said Zicheng Yu, a paleoecologist at Lehigh University who studies Arctic peat. “That carbon from the fires is released, then you get greater warming.”

In July alone, the fires released an estimated 79 million metric tons of CO2, according to the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts data released on Thursday. The average American, for reference, leaves a footprint of 15 tons of carbon emissions per year.

That means about a year's worth of 5 million Americans’ emissions came from the fires in the Arctic in a single month — and twice the carbon emissions of the last big Arctic fire season in 2004 and 2005.

Thomas Smith, who studies peat fires at the London School of Economics, isn’t usually phased by the scarier aspects of climate change. But these fires caught his attention. It’s not normal, he said, to have so much peat burning.

“That was the first time I was looking at my computer screen, and I thought, ‘That's not good,’” he said.

The importance of peat

When a forest burns, the carbon emitted gets reabsorbed when the vegetation grows back. But the Arctic fires are burning through a sensitive ecosystem, one that’s usually verdant, cool, and wet. Once burned, the peat there won’t store carbon again on any meaningful timescale.

“The peat accumulates over centuries or millennial,” Yu said. “Part of that can be burned off in days or weeks.”

The world’s peatlands are estimated to hold somewhere between 600 million and 800 million metric tons of carbon, “a huge amount,” according to Yu.

“Peatlands only cover about 3% of the Earth’s surface, and they contain the same amount of carbon in the entire atmosphere,” he said.

It’s difficult to tell from the satellite data just how many of the Arctic fires are burning through peat. But photos from the ground certainly suggest that, at least in some places, peat is on fire.

And the carbon emissions from burning peat aren’t the only aspect of the Arctic fires that will make the planet warmer.

The massive areas of snow and ice reflect reflect light and heat back into space. But when they’re covered in soot, that snow absorbs light and melts. And that means less snow and ice overall to send heat back out into the atmosphere and prevent the planet from warming even more.

The burning peat and the melting snow and ice will only contribute more to climate change, which catalyzed the fires in the first place.

How the fires started

After the hottest June on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the fires spread through the Arctic. Official climate data for July hasn’t been released yet, but the month was sweltering. Heatwaves boiled Europe and the U.S, and preliminary data indicates that the month was likely the hottest in recorded history.

And nowhere is the climate changing as quickly as in the Arctic. It’s warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. In June, it was 8 to 10 degrees Celsius hotter in the Arctic than it usually is. In Europe in June, it was just 2 degrees hotter than average.

The rising temperatures are leading to less moisture and more fires. There’s been a steady increase, especially in the last four years, in the size and frequency of fires in the Arctic.

“The peat that burns will take hundreds or thousands of years to be replaced, and may never be replaced if the climate change is not reversed,” Smith said.

Cover image: This July 21, 2019, satellite image provided by NASA shows winds carrying individual plumes of smoke in Russia, center right, towards the southwest, mixing with a swirling storm system. (Joshua Stevens, VIIRS, NASA EOSDIS/LANCE, GIBS/Worldview, Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership, NASA Earth Observatory via AP)