Arctic Heat: Wildfire Smoke Blankets Siberia, Alaska Shatters Temperature Records, Arctic Ocean Heat Sets off Large Algae Bloom

Siberian Wildfires July 31

Smoke from Siberian Wildfires now covers most of Arctic Russia. Image source: Lance-Modis.

There’s a lot of noise these days over the issue of global warming and human caused climate change. The static includes the intransigence of industry supported climate change deniers, a great confusion over climate context within some wings of the media, a number of increasingly personal attacks on the messengers — scientists, journalists, bloggers, and emerging threats experts — who communicate critical information related to climate change, and even a degree of professional disagreement within the sciences and among experts over key issues such as the potential rate of global methane release due to human warming.

(Read an excellent Guardian article about this debate here)

Despite all the vitriol, controversy and confusion, the signal coming from the Earth System couldn’t be clearer — the Arctic is showing every sign of rapid heat amplification and related emerging feedbacks and environmental changes.

The Arctic ring of fire

Over the continents circling the warming Arctic Ocean, a band from about 70 degrees north to about 55 degrees north, has increasingly erupted into heatwaves and massive wildfires. This year, huge fires blanketed both Canada and Russia, with a recent very large outbreak spreading over Siberia.

Over the past two weeks, numerous wildfires roared through Arctic tundra and boreal forests alike over a sprawling swath of northern Russia. These blazes rapidly multiplied to nearly 200 fires, covering most of Arctic Russia in a pallor of thick, soupy, smoke. The smog cloud blanketing Siberia now stretches nearly 3,000 miles in length and 1,500 miles in width, covering an immense slice of the Arctic and adjacent regions. The fires coincided with a large methane pulse that sent local readings to nearly 2,000 ppb, almost 200 ppb above the global average. Whether these higher methane levels were set off by a prolonged Arctic heatwave that has settled over Siberia since June or were tapped by the fires’ direct contact with thawing tundra remains unclear. But tundra melt and related carbon release, almost certainly set off by far above average temperatures for this Arctic region, clearly resulted in conditions that favored a heightened level of emission (You can track current global methane emissions through the excellent site: Methane Tracker.)

These massive blazes continued today with the most recent Modis shot showing a rash of red hotspots beneath a thickening ceiling of smoke:

Russia Fires July 31

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

Hat tip to the ever vigilant Colorado Bob for the new fire shot.

Arctic wildfires are an important and dangerous feedback to a warming polar climate. The fires produce soot that traps additional heat in the air while aloft and through reduction in the albedo of the surfaces it rains down upon. If the soot ends up on ice sheets, it can greatly amplify the summer sun, chewing large holes and accelerating melt (the Dark Snow Project is studying this highly worrisome dynamic). The fires also render carbon stocks locked in both the forest and the tundras through direct burning. As such, the fires result in a major extra CO2 emission source. The current fire in Siberia also appears to be exaggerating methane release from thawing tundra as large methane spikes appeared in the fire affected regions.

The result is that more heat is locked into an already vulnerable Arctic and global environment.

Alaska shatters temperature records

Meanwhile, across the Arctic, Fairbanks reported its 14th straight day of above 70 degree temperatures, shattering the previous record of 13 days running back in 2004. The Arctic location has also seen 80+ degree weather (Fahrenheit) for 29 days so far this summer and 85+ degree weather for 12 days this summer. The record for 80+ degree days is 30 during a summer and the previous record for 85 + degree days was 10 days. A ‘usual’ Alaskan summer only saw 11 80 degree days, with the current number for 2013 nearly tripling that mark.

So Fairbanks has shattered two summer high temperature duration records and is now closing in on a third. Since predictions call for high 70 to low 80 degree weather for at least the next few days, it appears likely that this final mark will fall as well. The Alaskan heat is expected to continue through at least this weekend after which temperatures are expected to fall into, the still above average, lower 70s.

Given these record hot conditions in Alaska, one has to wonder at the potential for fires to erupt in this region as well. An outbreak of large fires spread through the region in June. But compared to Canada and Russia, which have both seen major fire outbreaks, Alaska has been relatively quiet. Methane Tracker shows little in the way of 1950 ppb or higher readings over Alaska at the moment. But this is an uncertain indication to say the least.

The current Arctic Weather Map shows broad regions of warm to hot daytime conditions throughout much of the Arctic. Areas of highest temperatures are located in Alaska, Northwestern Canada, Siberia and Northern Europe. These Arctic heatwave conditions have persisted throughout the summer of 2013, drifting in a slow circle along with their related heat domes and high amplitude Jet Stream pulses.  So far, these conditions have shown little evidence of abating.

Alaska Canada Daytime Aug 1 Russia Europe Daytime August 1

The above images show respective daytime temperature forecasts provided by Arctic Weather Maps. Areas in red indicate temperatures ranging from 77 to 86 degrees. The first image shows daytime in Alaska and Canada for Thursday, August 1. The second image shows predicted daytime temperatures for Siberia and Europe for the same date.

Arctic Ocean heat anomaly soars

In addition to an immense rash of wildfires belching enormous plumes of smoke that now cover most of Northern Russia and record-smashing high temperature streaks in Alaska, we continue to see a rising heat temperature anomaly over a vast region of the Arctic Ocean. A broad stretch of sea area shows .5 to 1 degree Celsius above average sea surface temperatures. This region includes the Central Arctic Basin which has seen broad, anomalous areas of much thinner, more dispersed sea ice coverage. Isolated regions are showing temperatures in the range of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius warmer than average with the hottest region over the Barents and the Kara Seas near Norway and northern Russia.

sst.daily.anom

(Image source: NOAA)

The region where the highest heat anomaly measures have appeared also shows a very large green algae bloom. This oil slick like region is clearly visible in a freakish neon off-set to the typically dark Arctic waters. Higher ocean heat content and added nutrients increasingly fuel these kinds of blooms which can lead to fish kills and ocean anoxia in the regions affected. This particular bloom is very large, stretching about 700 miles in length and 200 miles in width along a region near the northern coast of Scandinavia.

Algae Bloom North of Scandinavia

Very large algae bloom north of Scandinavia. Image source Lance Modis.

As the oceans warm due to human caused climate forcing, there is increasing risk that large algae blooms and increasing regions of ocean anoxia will continue to spread and grow through the world ocean system. In the more extreme case, the current mixed ocean environment can turn into a dangerous stratified anoxic ocean environment. Past instances of such events occurred during the Paleocene and during ages prior. Oceans moving toward a more anoxic state put severe stress on numerous creatures inhabiting various ocean levels and is yet one more stress to add to heat-caused coral bleaching and ocean acidification due to increasing CO2 dissolution.

Ocean mixing is driven by the massive ocean heat and salt conveyors known as the thermohaline circulation. Slowing and changing circulation patterns can result in switches from a mixed, oxygenated ocean environment, to a stratified, anoxic state. Currently, a number of the major ocean conveyors, including the Gulf Stream and the warm water current near Antarctica, have slowed somewhat due to added fresh water melting as a result of human caused climate change.

Movement toward a more anoxic ocean state is an added stress on the world climate system and another of the myriad impacts set off by human warming. Though a complete switch from a mixed ocean to an anoxic ocean is still far off, it is an important long-term risk to consider. Perhaps one of the absolute worst effects of an unabated burning of fossil fuels and related carbon emissions by humans would be the emergence of a terrible primordial ocean state called a Canfield Ocean. But this is another, rather unsavory topic, likely worth exploring in another blog (nod to prokaryotes who has been fearfully hinting about risks associated with this particularly nasty climate mechanism on internet boards and in blogs and comments for years).

In the meantime, it’s worth considering the clear and visible effects of Arctic amplification currently in train: massive Siberian wildfires along with immense smoke plumes and troubling methane pulses, an ongoing Arctic heat wave that continues to break temperature records, and very high Arctic ocean temperature anomalies that are setting off massive algae blooms north of the Arctic circle.

Leave a comment

5 Comments

  1. Sometimes I feel relieved to be near retirement age. Children growing up now face a seriously problematic future.

    Reply
  2. Kevin Brandon

     /  August 1, 2013

    Well if things are THAT bad now, what can be done? And how much of this is due to natural forcings? It is a thorny problem to be sure. I expect before all is said and done humans will somehow make it worse.

    Reply
    • There is no response without forewarning and no action without hope.

      Large fires, heatwaves, algae blooms, we can deal with that now and later. What we can’t deal with is what happens if we don’t draw down fossil fuel emissions. Hence the forewarning.

      Reply
  1. IBI Watch 8/4/13 | IBI Watch

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