An Arctic on Fire Raises Dire Concerns for Climate Change and Pollution Levels
Arctic fires are not necessarily uncommon, but recent fires up north last month are unlike previous blazes; intense arctic wildfires in June not only released record amounts of pollutants into the air, but it also pushed global temperatures dangerously higher.
If you have followed with environmental news at all, you know that global warming does not always involve actual warming or hot temperatures. The term really refers to the earth’s rising, overall temperature—which affects everything from climate change to weather patterns to natural disasters. Scientists have been warning about the earth’s climbing temperature for years, saying that we are very near an irreversible tipping point. As of last month, we are that much closer.
Arctic fires do happen, and have been happening for some time, but last month, the Arctic—namely Siberia in Russia—hit record-high temperatures. The area reached 38 degrees Celsius, and fires burned vegetation, wildlife and permafrost.
The increase in temperature and the forest fires basically fed off each other, where an increase in temperature raised the likelihood of fires (because of dry conditions), and once the fires started, the temperature of the area continued to climb.
In Siberia, temperatures can drop to as low as -50 degrees Celsius, but this time of year, the area is around 20 degrees Celsius. Last month, temperature levels in the Arctic were almost double what they should have been.
However, the increase in temperature in the area and forest fires are actually not the biggest concern, scientists say. Temperatures in the area have been notably above average for months, which indicates accelerating climate change, according to the United Nations.
One New York Times article notes that the Arctic is warming at least two and a half times faster than the global average rate. Soils are very dry, wildfires are spreading and emitting massive amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide (up to 50 million metric tons in June alone). This is greater than all the carbon emissions produced by Norway, an oil-producing country, in one year.
“Higher temperatures and drier surface conditions are providing ideal conditions for these fires to burn and to persist for so long over such a large area,” Mark Parrington, a fire specialist at the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, which issued the report, said in a statement.
This year has been exceptionally warm in many other areas, too. Average global temperatures in June this year nearly matched the record for 2019, and scientists call this year as a whole one of the hottest on record. Average temperatures in Europe in June were 1.3 degrees warmer than the average over the period between 1981 to 2010, according to European data.
The aggressiveness of the Arctic fires is another factor that makes this year unusual. Scientists say that the size and intensity of the fires from the last two years are “cause for concern.”
Why? For one, fires cause huge dumps of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. Second, fires cause the thawing of Arctic permafrost, which also contributes for greenhouse gas emissions. As the article explains, “decomposition of the organic matter, like dead vegetation and animals, in this previously frozen ground would result in the release of more methane, another potent greenhouse gas.”
Have you forgotten about the other massive fires 2020 has seen? Let’s take a refresher. Australia saw thousands of acres burned and many lives lost in that start of the year. The Brazilian Amazon has lost nearly 1,300 square miles of forest since January, a 20 percent increase in cutting since last year, according to the Amazon Environmental Research Institute and the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. And those are just two that made international headlines.
Forest fires are real causes for concern in the climate change crisis. Recent burning in the Arctic is notably worrisome, say scientists, since its climate it is warming at such a faster rate. You can check out a fire trend graph that depicts carbon dioxide emissions from wildfires over the last few years here. Emissions from fires were on the decline, apparently, until 2019.
With much of the world focused on the coronavirus pandemic, forest fires in the Arctic might not seem like pressing news to some. However, many scientists, environmentalists and activists are saying that the call for climate action has repeatedly fallen on deaf ears, and this problem is only getting worse.
Famous environmental activist and spokesperson Greta Thunberg posted a recent tweet that sums up general frustration that not enough is being done to address the climate change crisis. Global warming, she has argued, is not a distant problem: it is the pressing here and now.