Major Arctic Fire Outbreak — Number of Active Alaskan Wildfires Doubles in Just Five Days

Late Sunday, there were 146 active wildfires burning in Alaska; as of Thursday afternoon, that number had exploded to 291.

A combination of record hot temperatures and unprecedented thunderstorm activity over the Arctic state has provided numerous dry fuels and lightning-based ignition sources over recent weeks. During the past few days, conditions rapidly worsened as an extreme fire outbreak absorbed all of the firefighting resources of Alaska and tapped a substantial portion of other states’ resources as well.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the NASA/MODIS satellite shot of Alaska (below) showed much of the massive state shrouded under vast clouds of steely gray smoke billowing up from the scores of wildfires blazing beneath. A cloud so large it is now becoming entrained in the Jet Stream and will likely blanket a large section of the Northern Hemisphere in a brown-carbon haze.

Alaska Wildfires Wednesday June 24

(The origin of a 3,000+ mile long cloud of smoke swirls over scores of wildfires now burning throughout Alaska and Canada. Over the past five days, the number of Alaskan wildfires alone has doubled — an upshot of record Arctic heat in a record hot world. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

According to Alaska Dispatch News, conditions on the ground were rapidly worsening as 40 new fires erupted on Wednesday. The swiftly expanding Tozitna fire forced Tanana community residents to evacuate. Another town — Nulato — was encircled by a 1,200-acre blaze Wednesday forcing its airstrip to shut down. The Nulato fire is now being battled by 100 firefighters working feverishly to save community structures. Meanwhile, Kenai Peninsula residents breathed a tentative sigh of relief as the Card Street fire and Willow’s Sockeye fire were checked by active firefighting efforts.

Joining what is now a massive, state-wide effort are firefighters sent from Missouri today. The Missourians are added to a now national effort to contain and control the raging Alaska blazes that, so far, have consumed over 400,000 acres. Firefighters may get a little help — with the weather predicted to back off record temperatures as storms ride in from the Gulf of Alaska.

Global Warming Intensifying Alaskan Wildfires

But conditions on the ground are making some firefighting efforts extremely difficult. For not only do fire crews have to combat blazes igniting in tradition fuels like boreal forests and tundra scrub, they also must deal with fuels added by an ongoing permafrost thaw. This thaw, set off by human-forced warming of the climate, unlocks organic materials long frozen within the soil itself. These organic materials form a carbon-rich peat-like layer beneath the top soil. And like peat, the stuff is flammable when dried through the increasingly warm Arctic Spring, Summer, and Fall. Once thawed and dried, it creates an understory fuel that can keep blazes burning for weeks, months, and sometimes years.

Throughout the Arctic, there are hundreds of billions of tons of permafrost. And much of it is now thawing at the southern edge and along the warming coastlines of the Arctic Ocean. Of this permafrost, Alaska has more than its fair share — with most of state soils covering a carbon-fueled permafrost under-layer.

It’s this combination of human-caused warming and the related unlocking of permafrost fuels that has likely contributed to a substantial increase in the number fires and area burned in Alaska over the last 60 years. For a report published Wednesday by Climate Central has now found that as temperatures warmed by 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.7 Celsius) in Alaska over the past six decades (twice as fast as the rest of the US) both the number of large wildfires and the area consumed by fires within the state is dramatically increasing.

Number of wildfires larger than 1,000 acres

(Climate Central’s June 24 report shows that the number of large Alaskan wildfires has nearly doubled in recent decades when compared with large wildfire frequency during the 1950s through the 1980s. Image source: Climate Central.)

Climate Central notes:

The area burned in large wildfires each year is increasing. In just two years, 2004 and 2005, wildfires burned a larger area than in the 15 years from 1950-1964 combined. In particular, there has been a dramatic increase in wildfires larger than 10,000 acres but smaller than 50,000 acres.

Though a 3 F (1.7 C) warming of Alaska over the past 60 years has already provided significant additional heat and fuels, additional warming through 2050 globally is predicted to be between 2 and 4 F (1.1 to 2.2 C) under moderate to severe additional fossil fuel emissions (RCP 4.5, RCP 6 and RCP 8.5). Due to polar amplification, warming in Alaska is likely to be roughly twice the global average. And as a result, fires throughout the state are only likely to grow more extreme.

UPDATE: According to the most recent Alaska Interagency Center Situation Report, fire totals jumped by an additional 26 active fires over the last 24 hours. Now 317 wildfires are actively burning in the region. Acres burned for 2015 have also jumped by more than 250,000 to a total of 919,000. If sustained, this pace of burning will be enough to challenge all time records for June set in 2004 at more than 1.6 million acres burned.

Some news reports have made the misleading claim that the current fire season is normal for Alaska. This is clearly not the case. Number of active fires and daily acres burned are now in exceptional to unprecedented ranges. Daily acres burned hitting totals greater than 200,000 are significant events that should not be treated so lightly.

Links:

Worst Fire Conditions on Record

Alaska Inter-agency Center Condition Report

Alaska Entering New Era For Wildfires

Alaska Dispatch News

LANCE-MODIS

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57 Comments

  1. climatehawk1

     /  June 26, 2015

    Tweet scheduled.

    Reply
  2. On the LANCE-MODIS photo, is that white ice breaking up to the right of the swirling wildfire smoke — fire and ice?
    Not good.

    Ugh. Must send congratulatory note to US Congress for a job well done. You know it couldn’t have happened without them.

    Reply
  3. I’m getting dizzy from all these posts. Hope the next one is on breathing exercises.

    Reply
  4. If interested, PDX KBOO FM will interview Guy Mcpherson. Ani and Lyn on ‘Positively Revolting’ will do it. They will make for a very lively talk — I’m sure.
    8 AM PDT or podcast later Fri 0626.
    http://kboo.fm/drguymcphersontalksabouthowwecanrespondt

    Reply
  5. Greg

     /  June 26, 2015

    Man, Robert you are on a roll. I think you are beginning to be fueled by permafrost carbon! I am supposed to be on the Kenai Peninsula with family in 5 weeks and thinking we should be purchasing travel insurance now. Feeling heavy for the folks up there…

    Reply
    • Fueled by solar energy! Permafrost carbon thaw does scare the living daylights out of me, though.

      The storm track is lighting up again. So you may be looking at fires or rough weather for your trip. The air particulate loading from the fires can lead to some volatile weather as well. So here’s to hoping you have a good trip!

      I just wanted to thank you for all the links and articles you’ve posted over the last few days. A lot of enlightening stuff that’s been very helpful in the ongoing research effort.

      Reply
  6. I’m sure I echo what other readers feel when I say thank you (again) for your tireless efforts and your oeuvre of articles on all things climate related! You’re a one man Climate Progress or DeSmog Blog. A very valuable resource, and my favorite place for great comments and enlightening links. And no BS deniers to deal with!! Other comments sections make my blood pressure go through the roof. You can only read the same ignorant talking points before your head explodes.

    Reply
    • Definitely agree. Climate Progress is an excellent resource, but the comments section has a large number of asinine denier content, making it essentially useless. A bit strange, since I imagine the folks there don’t want newspapers to publish letters from deniers …

      Reply
    • Hey Ryan, thanks so much for all the kind words. This week has really been something else on the climate front. I may have posted quite a bit — but for every one there are two or three more I feel I could have added. This is particularly frustrating during times when I have low energy (thankfully not now).

      I think I may write a bit on the Dutch lawsuit today. That is, unless we get another pop up issue. My focus is emerging threat related, but I do like to celebrate the good news and victories as they happen.

      As for the deniers… Well I think I get a little bit of the blood boiling by sifting through the comments in moderation so you guys don’t have to. I’m very focused on providing a forum for information sharing, active problem solving, and development and nurturing of individual expertise on climate science, climate change prevention and mitigation, situation tracking and analysis, and to support direct action to prevent and reduce harm related to climate change. When you take the fake, politically charged, stultified and polarized dialectic out, then achieving these goals becomes much more possible — encouraging both thinking and action on a critical issue.

      I’m proud and delighted to have so many strong-minded, action-oriented, and well intending people visit and contribute. You give life to the work I do and transform it into so much more than the effort of one concerned person. The strong, worthwhile, idea, in my view, carries far and you here have become a foundry for them.

      In any case, thanks again Ryan. I promise to keep doing my best for you guys and gals. The overall goal in all this — to prevent harm, preserve life, and empower positive action.

      Warmest!

      –R

      Reply
  7. I’m sure most have learned of this great news. Hopefully this precedent gets the ball rolling in other countries.

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/06/24/3673402/dutch-court-rules-country-must-act-on-global-warming/

    Reply
    • This is just amazing. The court ruling that will launch a hundred thousand lawsuits.

      Reply
    • Spike

       /  June 27, 2015

      The idea is also operating across the border in Belgium – I expect after the Dutch case there will be huge efforts to crush this.

      “Because we do not want to organize a farewell party for humanity. Because we want to safeguard the future of our children, our environment and our economy. Because our society can not continue on its current path, Klimaatzaak (Climate Case), a recently established non-profit group, has published an open letter and sent a notice to the Belgian authorities setting out its views. It is also preparing a court case to hold the government to account on its climate action commitments.

      Serge de Gheldere stated: ”We are doing this because we love our country, the Belgians and our children. Consider it as a lawsuit of love. However we think that in a democratic country, when science confirms that the consequence of political choices leads to the destruction of ourselves and our environment, we need to change course. We need to never reach that point.”

      Reply
      • This is exactly the kind of response we need. How could we keep burning fossil fuels knowing all that we know? It’s simply unconscionable. If we have love in hearts we know we absolutely must turn away from the destructive activity. The time for excuses is long past. The time for action is now.

        Reply
  8. Phil

     /  June 26, 2015

    Robert, appreciating your considerable effort in bringing all the events and issues into the public domain. So many things happening on so many fronts at the moment. Well done!

    Reply
    • Thanks Phil! It’s been a good run over the past couple of weeks. And there is absolutely a boatload of stuff to keep track of! Hope all is well with you!

      Reply
  9. I wonder if arctic fires will be fueled in the future from underground methane pools… this could get really bad.

    Reply
    • Pockets of methane in cases do provide fuel for these Arctic wildfires. Peat bogs, muskeg and thermokarst lakes can provide methane ignition sources. Most of the sources are in the near surface environment. However, ever since the recent blowhole events there’s been some speculation of an interplay between surface burning, ignition, and some of the deeper reserves. In any case, Arctic warming will tend to make all the methane sources more active and this can have an energetic impact not only on fires, but on other potential geophysical changes as well. It’s worth noting that a leading theory for blowhole generation is through the mechanism of over-pressure as available oxygen for combustion is problematic in the deep methane sources. However, large releases that are not immediately dispersed provide added risk of ignition and burning.

      Reply
  10. Tom

     /  June 26, 2015

    hip-hip hooray!

    Reply
  11. Pccp82

     /  June 26, 2015

    I recall in college we studied the Alaska fires by using remote sensing to estimate the area that had burned.

    it was a neat exercise, though my memory is failing as to when they happened in the season– I’m thinking actually later than now saw the peak but don’t quote me.

    Reply
  12. Well, I was getting sick and tired of being constantly reminded of how beautiful the place… was.

    Reply
  13. Leland Palmer

     /  June 26, 2015

    On NASA worldview, the 25th looked really bad:

    http://1.usa.gov/1NjsmMuh

    The 26th might be a bit better, or maybe it’s just because the data is incomplete. The time slider on the bottom can be manipulated to see data from previous days, months, and years. The image can be zoomed in and out.

    It’s hard to believe that the total acreage burned so far this season is “not unusual” according to some corporate news sources.

    Reply
    • Leland Palmer

       /  June 26, 2015

      Hmmm…the above link isn’t working, looks like I screwed it up. Let’s try that again:

      http://1.usa.gov/1NjsmMu

      Reply
      • New fire report out. Looks like more than 250,000 acres burned yesterday. YTD acres are 919,000 now. This is a massive amount of burning.

        Reply
    • Yesterday, 239,000 acres burned in total. Any single day burning of that magnitude is highly unusual (it happens, but not often).

      The worst June fire season saw more than 1.6 million acres burn. The least burning for a June fire season was less than 20,000 acres for Alaska. At 630,000 acres and likely continuing to push toward 1 million acres over the coming days, we’re in the range of some of the worst June fire seasons and we can easily say that this week — jumping from 120,000 acres burned to 630,000 acres burned in seven days — has been pretty amazingly bad.

      Given this context, sources saying there’s nothing unusual about this fire season are basically full of bull. It’s unusual to have so many fires break out so rapidly, it’s unusual to have 230,000 acres burn in one day, it’s unusual to see 500,000 acres burn in one week, and the current pace of burning putting June in the range of 700,000 to 1.2 million is among the worst fire seasons (if not the #1 worst on record).

      Not usual is a far better descriptor for what’s happening in Alaska. But, again, the denial meme is baked in.

      Reply
    • We also need to consider that there are upwards of 3,000 people across Alaska fighting these fires and that fire prevention efforts across the U.S. West, including Alaska, have been pretty much unprecedented. So this very large fire outbreak is despite best efforts to prevent and contain. Efforts that were not in place years ago…

      Reply
    • Given what’s going on in Siberia for the past 3 years, that selfsame media has probably settled on a *new* “usual.”

      Reply
  14. June Roullard

     /  June 26, 2015

    Chris Mooney has a great post on a new study concerning earthquakes in Greenland. (apologies if already mentioned).

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/06/25/giant-earthquakes-are-shaking-greenland-and-scientists-just-figured-out-the-disturbing-reason-why/

    Reply
    • That’s a good study. You get some pretty crazy geophysical changes due to large volumes of melting ice. And it’s not all just SLR related.

      Reply
  15. Scientists in South Asia struggle to understand heatwave

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-33288311

    Reply
    • 1150 heat deaths in Pakistan. I just got a capture of a 35.4 C SST in the Indian Ocean just outside the Persian Gulf near the heatwave region. Latent heat potential from this surface water spike theoretically supports a wet bulb of 35 C. Just west of the Philippines I have a 33.9 C SST — also showing potential support for high wet bulb readings in the danger zone for human beings. Though isolated spikes, these are dangerous readings implying an atmospheric potential for 35 C wet bulb events. For reference, both zones are near equator and show substantial 3-4 C above 1979-2000 average anomalies. Equatorial ocean water anomalies is this range are pretty unusual, unlike more poleward waters which pick up the signal of polar amplification more readily.

      Reply
      • I have a suspicion that these high wet bulb temperatures weren’t predicted by the IPCC to happen for a few decades further.

        Reply
      • That’s terrifying. It’s becoming clear that all the predicted impacts of AGW are unfolding much sooner than expected.

        Reply
  16. Apneaman

     /  June 26, 2015

    Wildfires threaten more Sask. communities

    “In a six-hour period Thursday, the north was hit by five thousand lightning strikes, which sparked 42 new fires. A total of 71 wildfires are currently active in the province.”

    http://saskatoon.ctvnews.ca/wildfires-threaten-more-sask-communities-1.2441133

    Reply
  17. eric smith

     /  June 26, 2015

    Robert,
    Have you read “Topsoil and Civilization”?
    They are going not for oil but for the last good soil on the planet.
    Or so they believe.
    I mentioned this to the academia at a Penn State conference on climate a decade ago.
    I said ” They are going for Russia because as this book states it has the last great wealth of soil left on the planet. I just hope they can put the brakes on in time.”
    I got one hell of an odd look. But it got their attention.

    Reply
    • Mblanc

       /  June 28, 2015

      Peak Soil.

      I don’t know much about this, apart from the odd article I have read, none of which were terribly positive. Would it not be cheaper invest in hydroponics, rather than WW3? Of course, I haven’t mentioned respecting the amount of the stuff we currently have, as that’s far too sensible…

      Hydroponics are quite efficient, I think, speaking from experience. Post-Snowden, it’s worth pointing out that the last sentence refers to past experience.😉

      Reply
  18. Robert in New Orleans

     /  June 27, 2015

    But can Sarah Palin still see Russia despite the wildfire smoke?😉

    Reply
  19. – Reuters – California

    Wildfires threaten thousands of homes in Southern California

    Two wildfires burning in parched forestland east of Los Angeles threatened thousands of structures on Friday as crews battled to contain the blazes before shifts in the wind pushed them into new territory, officials said.

    Mandatory evacuation orders for about a half-dozen communities in the San Bernardino mountains remained in effect on Friday, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Other evacuation orders could be issued if the fires continued to expand, it said.

    The blazes are among hundreds of separate wildfires burning from Alaska to Arizona as the U.S. West enters a wildfire season that experts fear could be especially destructive due to a crippling drought in California and parts of the Southwest and low snowpack in the Pacific Northwest.
    http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/26/us-usa-wildfires-idUSKBN0P62CB20150626

    Reply
  20. appaling

     /  June 27, 2015

    I wonder what the effects of all these fires are. First, they are releasing a great amount of CO2, Second, they are possibly darkening the snow/ice in the Arctic (and Greenland), lowering the albedo. Third, they are contributing lot of particles into the atmosphere.

    Therefore there seems to be mixture of positive and negative feedback, but I wonder what the balance is, positive or negative? And is the effect either way significant or just a small blip?

    I did try to find articles on this but did not find any definite answers.

    Reply
    • The overall balance is positive. Depending on the density of the brown carbon in the air, the particulate forcing can also be positive (darker cloud coloration, heating various layers of atmosphere etc). When the particles block out enough sunlight there is a temporary cooling at the eart surface. But, overall, the added CO2, methane, and the lower albedo from brown carbon particulate make for a positive feedback.

      Reply
      • appaling

         /  June 27, 2015

        So sad. Not only are the fires a catastrophe in their own right, they then also then accelerate the warming. I guess we could see long burning fires in the tundras around the world releasing the CO2 from the permafrost quicker than would otherwise have occurred.

        Reply
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