Wildfire Smoke over North Pole — Web Cam Shows Melt Ponds Beneath Brown Carbon Haze

For Alaska and Canada, as of today, an unprecedented 12,000,000 acres of forest and tundra overlying the rapidly thawing and human greenhouse gas emissions warmed permafrost has burned — going up in vast, billowing clouds of smoke. This smoke has spread out, caught up in the meandering Jet Stream, and is now visible in far-flung locations by both ground and satellite observation.

In addition to painting skies across Canada, Alaska and the Western and Central US milky white, upper level smoke from the fires has crossed Greenland and the North Atlantic, entered the Central Arctic Ocean and is now visible as a hazy pall over web cameras observing North Pole melt.

North Pole Web Cam Smoke Haze Melt Ponds

(Melt ponds and teetering markers near North Pole web cam beneath skies painted gray-brown by wildfire smoke. Image source: North Pole Environmental Observatory.)

In the above image we can see this smoke haze painting the sky a brown-gray pallor in the NEOPAWS North Pole web cam image. Beneath these skies, the sea ice surface has melted to the point that the marker strakes are wobbling off kilter and that substantial melt ponds are cutting deep furrows into the polar ice. The hazy hew of skies in this image together with an overhead cirrus cloud cover tinted brown indicates that smoke particles have been lofted into the Jet Stream level.

Wildfire Smoke over Sea Ice

Satellite tracking of the smoke also confirms ground-based observations. For as of July 6 a large bellow of smoke had wafted up from the unprecedented wildfires burning in Alaska (now at 4.44 million acres and climbing). Drawn up in a high amplitude Jet Stream wave this smoke could clearly be seen traversing the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in the MODIS satellite shot:

Wildfire smoke over sea iceUpper level smoke plume in herring bone pattern at center frame

(Top and bottom frame images tracking a plume of wildfire smoke emitting from Alaska, crossing the Beaufort and Chukchi seas on July 7 and entering the Central Arctic on July 12. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

By Sunday, this smoke had become entrained in the draw between a cyclonic circulation over the Laptev Sea and an anticyclone formation on the Greenland side of the Arctic. It’s a dipole pattern that has now lasted for more than a week. One that is regarded as rather unhealthy for late season sea ice totals. Note the herring-bone formation of darkened upper level clouds drawn through the dipole and running diagonally from upper left frame to lower right of the second image. The pole in image 2 is also in the lower right frame.

Conditions in Context — Brown Carbon at Jet Stream Level is an Amplifying Feedback

Lofting large amounts of brown carbon into the Jet Stream level of the atmosphere is an amplifying feedback to human-caused warming. One occurring in addition to the added rate of carbon release generated by these wildfires as well as to a transient negative feedback coming from generating thick, low level clouds, that block out sunlight.

High level clouds alone aid in the heating of the Earth — allowing visible sunlight to penetrate while trapping long rave radiation rebounding from the Earth’s surface. Painting these clouds dark through brown carbon smoke particulate emission into the upper atmosphere provides an added heat kick by further lowering cloud albedo and by re-radiating an overall greater portion of the transient heat. As a final insult, the brown carbon aloft eventually precipitates down to the surface. When such precipitation lands on ice sheets and northern hemisphere snow cover, it darkens the snow and enhances melt. A kind of ominous global warming fallout.

Smokey haze over North Pole melt ponds — one albedo reducing process being reinforced by the other.

Links:

North Pole Environmental Observatory

LANCE MODIS

Alaska Interagency Coordination Center

Canada Interagency Wildfire Center

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

(Please support non special interest based, publicly funded science, climate change mitigation, renewable energy transition, and climate change resiliency efforts)

Advertisements

Unprecedented Fire Season Has Burned 11 Million Acres So Far For Alaska and Canada

The land of ice is being transformed into the land of fire.

Greenhouse gas emissions are forcing the air to rapidly warm (half a degree Celsius each decade in some places). Frozen lands are thawing, liberating billions of tons of soil carbon as an ignition source for wildfires. And methane bubbling up from lakes, bogs, and wet zones in the soil itself provides yet more tinder for a rapidly developing Arctic fire trap.

Bog fire in Canada

(What the hell is wrong with this picture? Here we have a bog fire burning away in Saskatchewan, Canada on July 1st, 2015. The bright white color of the smoke is indicative of water vapor mixing in. Due to permafrost thaw, both bogs and related themokarst lakes have been emitting higher and higher volumes of methane over recent years. Methane that could well serve as a volatile fuel for fire ignition over wetlands like the one shown above. Image source: Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment.)

It’s a situation that gained explosive intensity this year as global temperatures hit new all-time record highs and as an obnoxiously persistent ridge in the Jet Stream delivered extreme heat to Alaska and Western Canada. As of today the 652 fires in Alaska alone had burned an unprecedented 3.5 million acres. That’s 3.4 million acres burned since June 18th and more than a million acres ahead of the previous record burn year of 2004. Across the border in Canada, an outrageous 4,672 wildfires had put another 6.6 million acres to the flame — double the five year average rate and nearly three times the 25 year average rate.

Wildfires in Canada now are so intense and widespread that the Canadian armed forces have deployed 1,400 personnel to support in a firefighting effort that has drawn resources from as far away as New Zealand. Earlier this week, the fires forced evacuation of more than 13,000 people in Saskatchewan Province alone. Smoke from the fires combined over the past week to form choking clouds that painted the skies milky-white from Alaska to Canada to the Northern and Central US. Smoke and poor air warnings were issued as far away as Denver Colorado, 1,000 miles to the south of Canada’s blazes. Further to the north and west, a massive smoke plume blotted out the sun over a broad region west of Seattle and Vancouver:

smoke plume Pacific Northwest

(Smoke cloud blots out the sun for massive region of the Pacific Northwest on July 5th. Image source: Rapid Response.)

Over the next few days, rains are expected to aid in what is now a massive fire suppression effort ongoing throughout Canada. However, rains have also brought with them an inordinate number of lightning strikes this year. And, contrary to some ill-informed statements in the mainstream press during the past couple of weeks hinting that people were the primary ignition source, lightning-initiated fires have been responsible for 99 percent of the acres burned in Alaska alone (information on acres burned by cause for Canada fires was not available in the CIFFC SITREP). In addition, fires have also shown an uncanny resiliency to rainfall — continuing to burn at a very rapid rate (250,000 acres in just the past day) despite widespread storms continuing to flood in from the Gulf of Alaska.

All these massive fires are burning through tree, scrub and bog. But, more importantly, they are penetrating the insulating layer of soil and contacting the thawing permafrost underneath. This soil-breaking fire mechanism is further exposing and accelerating the release of soil-locked carbon. It is also setting up situations where fires can burn in a thawed permafrost understory for additional days, weeks and months.

Methane spike to 2525

(Summer is not typically the time of year for substantial methane spikes. But we see them Tuesday in conjunction with increased rainfall, wildfires and thunderstorms throughout the Arctic. Image source: OSPO/METOP.)

We can see a hint of this ominous additional carbon release in the weekly methane readings which this Tuesday hit a peak value of 2525 parts per billion (596 mb) and an atmospheric mean of 1827 parts per billion (496 mb) in NOAA’s METOP measure. Meanwhile, CO2 spikes in the range of 410 to 420 ppm are also widespread throughout the Arctic. Indications that the intense fires are dumping a serious amount of carbon into the local and regional atmosphere .

With billions and billions of tons of carbon stored in the Arctic alone over the past 3-15 million years, we really don’t want to be rapidly warming the Arctic environment as we are. As we can see with this year’s record wildfires we’re actively tossing matches into what amounts to a carbon powder keg. So it’s just maniacally insane that Canada’s government is still planning an all-out production of Tar Sands that will make the already dangerous heat and fire conditions for Canada’s people worse and worse.

Links:

Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment

OPSO/METOP

Rapid Response

CIFFC SITREP

Alaska Interagency Coordination Center

Thousands Flee Homes in Saskatchewan

Massive Smoke Plume From Canada’s Wildfires

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat Tip to DT Lange

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

“Worst Fire Conditions On Record” — As Heatwaves, Drought Bake North American West, Wildfires Erupt From California to Alaska

There are 146 wildfires burning in Alaska today. A total that is likely to see at least another dozen blazes added to it by midnight. A total that has already absorbed the entire firefighting capacity of the State and has drawn hundreds of firefighters from across the country in places as far away as Pennsylvania.

For Alaska, it’s a case of record heat and dryness generating fuels for wildfires.

Alaska wildfires Sunday

(MODIS satellite shot of wildfires erupting over a sweltering Southwestern Alaska on Sunday, June 21. Wildfires in permafrost regions of the Arctic like Alaska are particularly concerning as they are one mechanism that returns ancient sequestered carbon to the Earth atmosphere. A sign of a feedback set off by human warming that will worsen with continued fossil fuel emissions. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Deadhorse, at the center of North Slope oil fields above the Arctic Circle set an all time record high of 82 degrees Fahrenheit (28 Celsius) on Sunday. That’s 3 degrees hotter than the previous all time record high of 79 degrees (26 C) set on August 16, 2004. The hottest reading for June at that location was a 68 degree (20 C) measure set in 2007. So, basically, Deadhorse just shattered the all-time record for June by 14 degrees (F) and the globally record hot summer of 2015 has only now gotten started.

Other locations experiencing new records for just Sunday included Kotzebue, which set a new all time record highest low temperature of 62 degrees (17 C). This reading broke the previous all time high minimum mark of 56 degrees (14 C), set in 1987. Bethel and Yakutat both tied their daily high minimum temperature records at 54 and 52 degrees (12 and 11 C), respectively.

And yesterday was just one day in long period of record heat for the State. Last month’s NOAA analysis showed temperatures fully 7 degrees Fahrenheit (4 C) above average. It’s a record heating that is now setting off severe wildfires all over Alaska. According to the state’s Wildland Fire Information Center, the relentless heat and dryness has turned spruce, hardwoods, brush, and tundra into dry fuels vulnerable to any ignition source. Over the past week, ignition has come in the form of lightning — with most of Alaska’s 2015 wildfires set off by nature’s spark.

As a result we are seeing nearly double the number of fires during June compared to a typical year. Fires that have already destroyed 30 structures, forced evacuations, and tapped Alaska’s firefighting resources to its limits.

Wildfires Burning in the Rainforests of Washington as Major Heatwave Approaches

Record hot temperatures and wildfires, unfortunately, are not just an issue for Alaska. They’re a prevalent concern all up and down Western North America. A zone that has seen several years of record hot temperatures and dryness. Extreme weather events fueled by such global warming-linked phenomena as a Ridiculously Resilient high pressure Ridge over the Northeast Pacific that has kept heatwave and drought conditions firmly entrenched throughout much of the region for months and years. An atmospheric condition that is also linked to a hot ocean surface water ‘Blob’ in the Northeast Pacific (which is itself implicated in a growing number of marine species deaths).

Paradise-Fire-June-17

(Paradise Fire burning near a drought-shrunken creek in the rainforests of Olympia National Park, Washington. Image source: NPS and Wildfire Today.)

This week, the added heat also generated wildfires in unusual areas like the rainforests of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. Driest conditions since 1951 have resulted in a great deal of fire resiliency loss for forests in the region (1951 was the year of the historic Five Forks Fire, one of the worst ever to impact Washington State). Already, a rare early summer wildfire (called the Paradise Fire) has burned through 417 acres of forest.

Firefighters are doing their best to contain the blaze. But the record heat and dryness are multiplying fuel sources. Fires are enabled by dried lichens growing high up in the trees. When flames touch the lichens they rapidly ignite sending sparks to other lichen-covered tree tops. In this way, flames can leap rapidly from tree to tree under current conditions.

It’s very unusual to see fires in this rainforest zone. And when ignitions have occurred in those very rare cases, they have typically flared during late Summer and early Fall. So this June burning has fire officials very concerned — especially given the nearly unprecedented fire hazard conditions throughout the State. Conditions that are predicted to rapidly worsen as an extreme heatwave is expected to build through the coming weekend.

West Coast Heatwave Saturday

(A major heatwave is predicted to invade the US West and Northwest States this weekend. Washington and Oregon are predicted to experience temperatures more typical of desert sections of California and Arizona. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

Temperatures over large stretches of Washington and Oregon are expected to climb into the 90s and 100s, possibly reaching the 110s (Fahrenheit — Celsius range from 33 to 45) by Sunday. For these typically cool, wet States, this brutal heat blow, should it emerge as predicted, will set off a spate of all time record high temperature readings, deepen drought conditions extending northward from California, and heighten fire conditions that are already in the range of worst ever experienced for sections of these States.

California Experiencing “Worst Fire Conditions On Record”

Moving further south along the U.S. West Coast we come at last to the drought hot zone that is California. A State that is now enduring its fourth year of drought. A drought that tree ring studies show is likely the worst such event in 1,000 years.

These harsh climate conditions were starkly highlighted this weekend as reports from State emergency planning officials now indicate that California is currently experiencing its worst fire conditions on record.

Ken Pimlott, Director of CAL FIRE noted:

We measure the fuel moisture content of all of the vegetation -the brush and the trees and we track that over the course of time and compare it month to month each year. And we put it through formulas and determine how much energy and how much heat it will put out when it’s burning. And we have seen -we saw it last year and we will see it again this year- we’ll be reaching records for potential heat output for times of the year that would normally not be burning in those conditions.

Wildfire nonexistent snowpack

(Large wildfire burns in forests along the slopes of Sierra Nevada Mountains whose peaks are now entirely devoid of snow cover. Note that remaining glaciers are shown turning a dull brown in the June 21 MODIS satellite shot.)

So far this year over 1,100 wildfires have already ignited throughout the State. That’s nearly twice the typical number of 650 blazes popping up by this time of year. Exacerbating this stark context is a state water resource crisis compounded by non-existent Sierra Nevada snowpacks and dead trees that now number in the millions.

This is not Normal, Nor Should We View Widespread, Related Events in Isolation

Record and unusual Alaska, Washington, and California wildfires this season are, thus, not occurring in isolation, but as an inseparable feature of ongoing climate trends related to human-caused global warming. In this case, heatwaves are related to visible and extreme record ocean and atmospheric temperatures that have been ramping both globally and in the regions affected over past years and decades. And the fact that 2015 is continuing as the hottest year on record globally should also not be viewed as separate from the events witnessed all up and down the North American West Coast. Events that were largely predicted in many global climate models assessing the impacts of human based greenhouse gas warming on this vital national and global region.

We’ll end here by considering this thought — it’s only June, yet up and down the North American West Coast we are experiencing some of the worst heat, drought, and fire conditions ever recorded. It’s only June…

*   *   *   *

UPDATE NOON EST, JUNE 23, 2015: Satellite Imagery confirms that, over the past 24-48 hours, the wildfire situation in Alaska has continued to worsen. Widespread and large fires running throughout southwestern, central, northeastern and eastern Alaska today expanded and multiplied:

Wildfires Alaska June 22

(Fires flared to dangerous size across Alaska on June 22nd and 23nd. Image source: LANCE-MODIS)

These rapidly proliferating fires cover a diagonal swath stretching about 800 miles from southwest to northeast across the state. The fires are burning through Alaska’s permafrost zone and current intensity in the satellite image is similar to some of the worst Arctic fires we’ve seen during recent years. A substantial number of these fires feature smoke footprints indicating 5-10 mile active burn fronts. Smoke plume size is now large enough to become caught up in the Jet Stream and impact visual features of skies across the Northern Hemisphere.

Based on these satellite shots, it appears that Alaska is experiencing a heightening and very severe fire emergency — one that shows little sign of abatement over the next few days.

Links:

Deadhorse Sets New All-Time Record High Temperature

NOAA Global Analysis May 2015

Alaska’s Wildland Fire Information Center

More Than 100 New Fires Spring Up Across Alaska

PA Firefighters Heading to Alaska to Battle Wildfires

Wildfires Burn in Olympic Rain Forest

Climate Reanalyzer

LANCE-MODIS

California Fire Says 2015 Fire Conditions are Worst on Record

Die-off of Millions of California Trees Centered in Sierra Nevada

Hat Tip to DT Lange

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

%d bloggers like this: