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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

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Permafrost Thaw Feedback To Blow Carbon Budget ‘Faster Than We Would Expect’

“Permafrost carbon emissions are likely to be felt over decades to centuries as northern regions warm, making climate change happen faster than we would expect based on projected emissions from human activities alone.” — Climate Change and the Permafrost Carbon Feedback

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Soil Organic Carbon Store

(Extent of Northern Hemisphere 1 meter soil organic carbon store in the now thawing and burning permafrost. At about 1,000 billion tons, it’s more than enough to put a hefty strain on the IPCC’s remaining 275 billion ton carbon budget. Image source: Stockholm University.)

For a moment, let’s consider some rather difficult to deal with numbers —

790 billion tons — that’s the so-called ‘carbon budget’ the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates we need to stay within to prevent 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming in just this Century (note that current stated fossil fuel reserves hold enough carbon to exceed this budget many times over). It’s the level IPCC says we need to stay below to prevent ‘bad outcomes.’ A rate of warming that does not including later temperature increases in following centuries — which would be about double the 21st Century’s amount if global greenhouse gas levels managed to plateau and the global carbon stores remained on good behavior.

515 billion tons — that’s the amount of carbon humans have already emitted into the atmosphere. It leaves us with less than 275 billion tons remaining.

About 24 years — that’s how long it will take for humans to burn enough fossil fuels and emit enough carbon (at current and projected rates) to use up that ‘carbon budget.’ A break-neck pace of burning and dumping of carbon that is now probably about six times faster than at any time in the geological record. Faster than the atmospheric carbon accumulation during the last hothouse extinction — the PETM. Faster than during the worst hothouse mass extinction of all — the Permian.

Hitting Carbon Limits

Sound like we’re up against some hard limits? Well, we are. Because the above basically implies that human emissions would need to start falling dramatically now and get to near zero by 2050 to meet IPCC’s goal. A limit that, by itself, may have built in too much slack and may not have taken into account other responses from the Earth climate system.

Now let’s consider these new numbers from a recent permafrost study released earlier this month in the context of IPCC’s ‘carbon budget…’

0.6 degrees Celsius — that’s the pace at which the Arctic is warming each and every decade. According to the new study:

This is causing normally frozen ground to thaw — exposing substantial quantities of organic carbon to decomposition by soil microbes. This permafrost carbon is the remnant of plants and animals accumulated in perennially frozen soil over thousands of years, and the permafrost region contains twice as much carbon as there is currently in the atmosphere.

This amounts to about 1400 billion tons and around 1,000 billion tons in the shallow carbon store alone. A massive fireplug of carbon stored in thawing (and burning) land-based permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere at a shallow depth of zero to 3 meters. The new study expects 40 to 170 billion tons of this carbon store to release over the next 85 years. A further 120 to 300 billion tons could hit the atmosphere by 2300 if the ongoing thaw in the north continues.

model estimates of potential carbon release from permafrost

(Model estimates of potential carbon release from permafrost. Note that Pg carbon is roughly equivalent to gigatons of carbon. Image source: Climate Change and the Permafrost Carbon Feedback.)

So where does that leave our so-called carbon budget?

Averaging the report’s findings, we can add about 92 gigatons of baked-in feedback from the shallow permafrost zone alone and end up with 607 billion tons of carbon (human + expected permafrost). This leaves us with about 15 years before we are locked in to hit the ‘2 C limit’ of around 450 ppm CO2 by end Century (not considering a current 485 ppm CO2e level or end Century CO2e of 530 to 550 ppm when all other greenhouse gasses are added in).

In addition, the 120 to 300 billion additional tons from the shallow permafrost store expected to keep out-gassing through 2300 would ultimately result in a carbon pool that pushes atmospheric values up to 480-530 ppm CO2 (560 to 600 CO2e) and turns the ‘2 C limit’ into a 4-6 C (7.2 to 10.8 F) long term climate bake.

Carbon Debt With Compound Interest

Looking at the report’s numbers leaves us with the all-too-salient impression that we really don’t have a carbon budget at all. What we have is carbon bankruptcy. A carbon compounded debt shock enough to crack the whole of the Earth System carbon piggy bank and bleed out gigaton-sized carbon pennies for decades and centuries to come. And the new shallow permafrost carbon feedback estimate does not include the approximate 400 gigatons of carbon in the deep permafrost. Nor does it consider ocean carbon stores — which may provide their own carbon debt spiral. Nor does it include Antarctic carbon stores or a number of other possible stores that could be pushed out by heat stress.

Needless to say, some considered the news in the recent Nature Report ‘good.’ At least it didn’t identify a 50 gigaton methane release over one decade from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf as some other recent articles have considered. Some news reports even went so far as to call an approximate 92 gigaton release by 2100 (or a little more than 1 gigaton per year) from permafrost carbon ‘slow.’ The last hothouse extinction, the PETM, also saw similar ‘slow’ rates of release from the global carbon system. So, slow when compared to the raging 10 gigaton per year pace of current human emissions, but fast when compared to about practically anything else in geological history.

What the new report really means is that humans can’t afford to emit any more carbon. And what we need to be looking at now is a way to swiftly transition to a net carbon negative civilization — fast.

“This is not a minor feedback,” Kevin Schaefer, a prominent scientist from the National Snow and Ice Data Center said in a recent report on the new study’s findings. “… If you don’t account for it, you’ll overshoot this 2 degree target.”

Links:

Climate Change and the Permafrost Carbon Feedback

Thawing Permafrost — The Arctic’s Giant Carbon Release

Earth’s Natural Fridge is Turning into a Greenhouse Gas Machine

Bacteria Warm up the Permafrost

Stockholm University

Permafrost Feedback Update — Good News or Bad?

“The Dry Land Burned Like Grass” — Siberia’s Road to a Permaburn Hell

(Residents of the Trans Baikal region of Russia flee through a raging permafrost fire on April 13 of 2015. Video Source: The Road to Hell Recorded by: Vladislav Igorevich.)

The script reads like a scene from some post-apocalyptic disaster film.

Frigid Siberia begins an epic thaw — a thaw set off by an unstoppable dumping of heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere by human fossil fuel industry. Finally, after years of warming, the thawing land itself becomes fuel for fires. A thick layer of peat-like organic material that serves as kindling to the heat-dried trees and grasses atop it.

Immense blazes ignite in April — fully 100 days before the usual fire season in late July. The fires explode to enormous size, doubling in area in less than a day, covering scores to hundreds of square miles. Residents flee or face off against walls of raging flame in bucket and hose brigades. Military units descend on the regions affected to fight blazes and prevent looting. The fires are freakish, starting from nowhere at a moment’s notice. Eyewitnesses at the scene of one fire describe the surreal situation saying: “… the dry land burned like grass.”

inside_chita_fores

(A wall of fire confronts residents of Chita, Russia this week as local townsfolk prepared to defend their homes and livelihoods from the inferno. Image source: The Siberian Times.)

But for two regions of Russia, that’s exactly what happened this week.

In Khakassia, a region of southern Siberia bordering Kazakhstan and Mongolia, massive blazes ripped through a broad permafrost thaw zone, impacting 39 villages, killing 29 people and leaving thousands homeless. By Thursday, many of these massive fires were finally extinguished — leaving miles wide scars over a smoldering and blackened land.

Hundreds of miles away in Trans Baikal, the story was also one of hellish inferno. There, wildfires erupted from the thawing permafrost zone — engulfing forests, burning dry land, destroying hundreds of homes in more than 9 villages, and killing four people. One wildfire alone surged to nearly 400 square miles in size and threatened numerous settlements near the city of Chita. There, locals are still fighting the blaze in a desperate effort to preserve life and property.

Chita Fires April 17 2015

(Satellite image of fires and large burn scars in Chita, Russia on April 17 of 2015. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 120 miles. Note that some of the burn scars in this satellite shot stretch for 20 miles at their widest point. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

In total, nearly 50 villages and towns have now been affected, 33 lives have been lost, four more have gone missing, nearly 7,000 people are now homeless, and more than 6,000 domestic animals have been lost to the fires. These are the first, early casualties in a fire season stoked by climate change that will flare off and on for at least the next five months. A fire season that will likely see immense plumes of smoke covering broad sections of the Northern Hemisphere, involve Canadian and Alaskan permafrost zones, and see wildfires burning all the way through Siberia to the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

And so we are just at the start of a long road through another hellish Arctic fire season, one enabled and made far, far worse by a current and very rapid rate of human-forced warming.

Links:

Fire Rages on as Death Toll Reaches 33

LANCE MODIS

The Road to Hell

Vladislav Igorevich

Unprecedented Early Start to Perma-Burn Fire Season

Siberia Ravaged by Forest Fires

Hat tip to Alexander Ac

Unprecedented Early Start to ‘Perma-Burn’ Fire Season — Deadly Wildfires Rage Through Siberia on April 12

Permafrost. Ground frozen for millennia. An enormous deposit of organic carbon forming a thick, peat-like under-layer.

Forced to warm at an unprecedented rate through the massive burning of heat-trapping gasses by human beings, this layer is now rapidly thawing, providing an amazing source of heat and fuel for wildfire ignition.

Joe Romm over at Climate Progress has long called this region ‘Permamelt.’ But, with a doubling of the number of wildfires for the high Arctic and an extension of the permafrost fire season into early April this year, we may well consider this to be a zone of now, near permanent, burning — Permaburn.

*   *   *   *  *

inside_burning_village_gv

(Massive outbreak of permafrost wildfires in Russia this week have left up to 34 villages in smoldering ruins. Image from Khakassia, Russia via The Siberian Times.)

For Khakassia, Russia the story this week has been one of unprecedented fire disaster.

Khakassia is located along a southern region of Siberia bordering northern Mongolia and Kazakhstan. It is an area that typically experiences cold temperatures — even in summer time. An area of frozen ground representing the southern boundary for Siberian permafrost. There, as with much of Siberia, temperatures have been forced to rapidly warm by human greenhouse gas emissions. And this added heat forcing has contributed to ever-more-powerful and extensive wildfires as the permafrost thawed — providing an ever-increasing volume of fuels for wildfires.

Last year, Siberian wildfires also came far too early — impacting a broad region near Lake Baikal, Russia during late April. But this year, the fires have come near the start of April. An extension of the burning season in Siberia inexorably toward the winter-spring boundary.

Khakassia Fires April 12 2015

(Extensive wildfires burn though Siberian Khakassia on April 12 of 2015. In the image, we can see down through a break in the cloud deck to view smoke plumes from scores of wildfires raging throughout the region. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 120 miles and the largest burn scars range from 3-5 miles across. As Siberian permafrost burn season progresses, we can expect fires that belch smoke plumes across the Northern Hemisphere emitting from burn scars as large as 30 miles or more across. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

This weekend, temperatures in Khakassia soared to 25 degrees Celsius — 15-20 degrees Celsius above average for daytime temperatures in this region even during recent warmer years (1979-2000). A near 80 degree Fahrenheit reading that would be warm in summertime — but one that cropped up in early April as a result of powerful and hot south to north air flows transporting heat across Asia and into the Arctic. These flows wound through Central Asia, warming Khakassia to record temperatures in their inexorable surge toward the pole.

The heat over Khakassia rapidly thawed surface vegetation, extending warmth deep into the thawing permafrost layer. The result was an outbreak of massive wildfires. Beginning this weekend the blazes have, so far, raged through 34 villages and been blamed for 1300 destroyed homes, the loss of nearly 4000 herd animals, 900 human injuries and 20 deaths. Such a fierce and destructive fire outbreak during summer would have been unprecedented. For this kind of event to occur in April, at the edge of Siberian winter, is nothing short of outlandishly strange.

Russian authorities have blamed the fires on a combination of hot weather and human burning. It is a tradition for Russian farmers to burn to clear fields during this time of year. And it is this practice that media is focusing on. However, traditional burning during spring did not historically result in the kinds of massive blazes that ripped through Khakassia earlier this week. Russian farmers, in this case, are unwittingly flinging matches into a tinderbed of rapidly thawing compost. A pile of warming and chemically volatile peat-like perma-burn that is providing more and more fuel for intense fires.

Links:

Siberian Wildfires — 17 Killed and Hundreds Injured as Blazes Sweep Through Siberia

Fire Death Toll Rises to 15 in Khakassia as Republic Mourns

Siberia Ravaged by Forest Fires

Permamelt — Climate Progress

When April is the New July — Siberia’s Epic Wildfires Come Far too Early

LANCE MODIS

2014 Hottest Year on Record Amidst Ocean Heat Spikes and Arctic Wildfires

According to Japan’s Meteorological Agency, 2014 set new inauspicious marks as the hottest year in the global climate record since measures began in 1891.

Temperatures rocketed to 0.27 C above the 1981-2010 average, 0.63 C above the 20th Century average and showed a severe pace of warming of 0.70 C per Century. By comparison, the end of the last ice age featured century scale warming at the rate of 0.04 to 0.05 C every 100 years. So the current rate of warming, according to the JMA measure, is 14-17 times faster. A rapid warm-up driving increasingly severe weather and geophysical changes.

2014 Hottest Year on Record

(JMA measure shows 2014 was hottest year on record. Image source JMA.)

NOAA is also expected to show 2014 as hottest year on record. NASA is likely to show 2014 as 1rst, 2nd or 3rd hottest.

2014, according to JMA, was the first record breaker since the super El Nino year of 1998 with 2014 beating out 1998 by 0.05 degrees C. However, the JMA measure also showed that all ten hottest years on record occurred since 1998. Perhaps more telling is the fact that the JMA measure reveals no hiatus in the pace of global atmospheric temperature increase with all years since 1998 at or above the trend line.

Ocean Heat but No El Nino

World ocean surface temperature spikes were the primary driver of the new global surface temperature record with NOAA’s measure showing a majority of months as hottest ever recorded for the world ocean. North Pacific and North Atlantic Ocean temperatures were particularly hot — with a West Coast heat pool driving ocean dead zone events and starfish die-offs alike. In this region and off the US East Coast, Ocean temperature anomalies regularly topped 4 degrees Celisus above average. An extraordinary degree of heat that, in some cases, saw tropical fish species heading into Arctic waters for solace from the record warmth.

Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly global August 29, 2014

(Extraordinary Sea Surface Temperature spikes occurred in late August and mid October, with most of 2014 showing extreme ocean heating. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

El Nino threatened throughout much of the year. But despite a warming near the Equatorial Pacific temperature thresholds failed to fully tip into El Nino. An ominous sign considering that El Nino is the hot phase of atmospheric and surface temperature variability — which may mean that the next El Nino will drive a global high temperature departure even more extreme than 2014’s record setting value.

Severe Weather, Climate Extremes During Hottest Year

2014 also featured some of the worst weather on record with the US experiencing extraordinary dipole anomalies coincident with polar vortex collapse events and severe Arctic warming. Across the Atlantic, the UK experienced both its stormiest winter on record and its hottest year on record. A year hotter than any since 1649 for that nation.

Throughout the world severe droughts ravaged wide regions with the US Southwest still in the grips of the worst multi-year drought in 1,200 years. This year’s California drought was the most recent iteration of this severe event featuring a ridiculously resilient high pressure ridge that has continued to rob California of much of its typical seasonal moisture.

Amazon drying and wildfires also made news this year amidst a severe drought gripping the Sao Paulo megalopolis in Southeastern Brazil. The ongoing drought has shut off monsoonal moisture, forced residents to ration water, and threatens to put city water officials in the position of turning to use of mud for municipal water supplies.

Glaciologists identified massive sections of Antarctic land ice that had reached the point of irreversible collapse. Many of these researchers pointed toward an expanding pool of warm bottom water undermining sea facing glaciers as the culprit for this increasingly rapid glacial melt. A set of circumstances that creates a higher risk of more rapidly rising seas.

To this point, the City of Miami began a combined program of installing pumps to rid streets of flooding at times of high tide and has assessed a property tax to begin its efforts to fight the surge of waters set off by human caused climate change. New studies also found high risk areas such as Hampton Roads in Virginia now featured tens of thousands of properties under such serious threat of flooding that only FEMA will provide them with insurance — a number that will continue to increase along with the sea levels (globally at 3.3 millimeters of increase per year but as high as 7-8 mm per year in some regions).

Ominous Signs the Permafrost is Starting to Disgorge its Carbon Store

Sections of Siberia and Canada experienced extraordinary warmth during winter and spring of 2014 — setting off severe early season wildfires that raged well into late summer. These megafires continue the trend of recent years in which massive blazes rip through the Siberian tundra region disgorging methane and CO2 laden smoke plumes that then encircle the Northern Hemisphere.

For the Northwest Territories of Canada, this past summer represented its worst fire year ever recorded with massive blazes forming towering pyrocumulus clouds over vast burning regions of Arctic permafrost. A fitting backdrop for the Mordor-like activities of Alberta tar sands extraction.

very-intense-fires-burning-in-yakutia

(Very intense wildfires, some the size of smalls states as seen above in the LANCE MODIS shot from July of 2014, raged through Siberian tundra this summer. For reference the bottom edge of frame is 120 miles. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

In all, about 1,300 gigatons of carbon are stored in the now thawing permafrost, a region Joe Romm is calling the permamelt (perhaps permaburn is a better term). And a human enhanced warming of the Arctic appears to be speeding that carbon’s rate of release into the atmosphere. An impact that could further accelerate human-caused warming. An ignominious circumstance leading to more record warm years and related global climate extremes to come. One that adds urgency to the need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuel burning and human activities that dump massive volumes of carbon into the atmosphere.

Links:

JMA Global Average Surface Temperatures Reach New Record in 2014

2014 Was The Hottest Year By Far

Met Office Confirms 2014 was Hottest Year on Record for UK

LANCE MODIS

2014’s Unprecedented Arctic Wildfires

The Climate Reanalyzer

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