Wildfires in the Arctic have produced more carbon emissions this year than in any year on record, according to scientists at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), an EU agency. So far in 2020, millions of acres inside the Arctic Circle have gone up in flames, releasing 244m tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, compared with 182m tonnes in the whole of last year. (Before 2019, the record was 110m tonnes in 2004.) Figures from the Global Carbon Project, a network of scientists, suggest that this year’s fires have generated more carbon emissions than, say, Malaysia or Spain does burning fossil fuels in an entire year.
Experts worry the fires may be evidence of a vicious circle of climate change. Arctic wildfires—especially those burning in the carbon-rich zone between tundra and boreal forest—emit a wide range of pollutants including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and solid aerosol particles. As they consume organic matter, they also release carbon dioxide and methane, both greenhouse gases that cause global warming. CAMS estimates the emissions from each fire by measuring its “radiative power”, the rate of radiant-heat generated by the blaze, and calculating the amount of burning biomass required to produce it. Bigger, hotter fires are both a symptom and a cause of climate change, which is occurring more rapidly in the Arctic than elsewhere. They not only release large amounts of planet-warming greenhouse gases, but also leave dark scars and soot, increasing the amount of heat the region absorbs from the sun.
Warm weather may be reviving some fires thought to have been extinguished. The majority of this year’s fires occured in Russia’s Sakha Republic and Chukotka Autonomous Okrug in the far north-east of Siberia, regions that have both experienced heatwaves in recent months. On June 20th the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, north of the Arctic circle, recorded a high temperature of 38°C. Scientists think that some of these blazes are the result of “zombie fires”, which smouldered underground in pockets of peat since last year, before being reignited by warm weather. According to one study, these “overwintering” fires are more likely to occur in years after a large burn. The worry is that the Arctic wildfires will continue only to escalate.
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