It’s abnormally warm today near Great Slave Lake, Northwest Territory. And the smell of smoke from massive fires to the west lingers in the air.
Temperatures there yesterday afternoon read 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Where I sat typing this blog in Gaithersburg, Maryland, it was a somewhat cooler 67. A north-south temperature flip-flop that has become all-too-common in recent years. A warming in the Arctic that sets the stage for gargantuan summer wildfires burning through some of the world’s greatest carbon stores. Vast and thawing permafrost deposits stretching in a great arc from Siberia through Alaska and on into Northern Canada. Immense loads of fuel for a newly forming ring of fire that is now an entirely human invention.
(It was pretty darn hot near Great Slave Lake, NWT territory Wednesday. 80 degree readings in a polar region that, on average, should be in the mid 40s as a daily high for May 13. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)
Now, fires are starting to flare around this broad stretch of once-frozen lands rapidly warmed by an unprecedented belching of heat-trapping gasses into the Earth’s atmosphere. Though the fires are not yet widespread, many are rather large — erupting over a smattering of areas. It is not typical for large fires of this kind to appear at all in May. Nor is it usual to find them in regions girding the Arctic at this time.
Lake Baikal Fires Still Burn
The first set of blazes ignited during mid April of 2015 through a permafrost zone in the Lake Baikal region of Russia. Though the fires appear to have backed off from the towns and settlements they threatened at that time, they have continued to burn unabated — fading and flaring more than most of the past month.
(In the above MODIS satellite shot from NASA we see numerous fires still burning near Lake Baikal in Russia. Note the multiple dark burn scars covering vast stretches of land near upper center frame. For reference, the larger, still burning fires in this shot range from about 3-8 miles wide. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)
As the more southerly fires continued to burn through thawing permafrost zones, blazes began to erupt further and further north. As of this week, the fires have marched to the shores of Lake Baikal itself, scorching their black scars in the Earth like some great fire giant’s footprints.
Wildfires in Central Siberia
Leaping over Lake Baikal and moving north and westward we come to the great open spaces of Siberia. Here, in recent years, vast fires have burned through grass, forest and permafrost alike. Few settlements dot the wide expanses. So fire suppression efforts have only rallied when towns and cities were threatened. Meanwhile, the once frozen regions all about have increasingly caught fire. Turning the place into a land of summer flame.
(Fires igniting along valleys and ridge lines in Central Siberia. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)
By Wednesday, a quartet of significant fires had erupted along a hilly region in Central Siberia. Tuesday, there was but a single blaze. Now four rage across a region that has felt an extraordinary warming not only this year, but for a long succession of years now stretching on for many decades.
Beyond these newly emerging fires, we begin a pass over the wide open plains of Siberia. There we note a tell-tale whiff of smoke or three. But no large burn points are visible in the moderate resolution satellite shot. Continuing on to just south of Yamal, Russia where the odd methane blow holes first appeared last summer we find a region still mostly frozen. But thaw is predicted to come quickly — coincident with a rapid warm up forecast for the next week.
Norman Lake Fires British Columbia
Shifting still westward we cross over Northern Europe, the Atlantic, a thawing Hudson Bay and return to where we started our narrative in Northwest Territory Canada. To near 80 degree Fahrenheit temperatures at Great Slave Lake. And to a thick cloud of smoke issuing up from the nearby valleys of Northern British Columbia.
(Norman Lake Fire in the MODIS satellite shot on Wednesday, May 13. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)
There, near Prince George, at Norman Lake, a massive wildfire erupted earlier this week. Unable to contain it, more than 100 firefighters and numerous helicopter and heavy equipment crews quickly found themselves fighting a defensive battle against a rapidly expanding blaze. By this morning, the Norman Lake fire had more than quadrupled to 80 square kilometers in size. Indications from the above satellite shot are that the fire is still growing.
The massive blaze forced two regional districts to issue evacuation orders or alerts and more than 80 people to evacuate residences. Meanwhile, B.C. has closed its Dahl Lake and Bobtail Mountain provincial parks until further notice.
Conditions in Context
For wide stretches of the Arctic, especially in Central Siberia and Western Canada, winter heat and early spring melt are contributing to a very high risk of wildfires. In addition, the decadal warming forced by human-caused climate change is thawing ever greater portions of permafrost, which also adds near surface fuels to traditional brush and woodlands fires.
The early and intense fires we are seeing now represent just the beginning of what is likely to be an extreme fire event for these regions. At this point, we are looking at a worsening fire potential stretching from now through mid September for these vulnerable Arctic zones.