Half a Million Acres Burned in Just One Day — Alaska Shatters Record For Worst June Wildfire Outbreak Ever

All throughout the mainstream media last week we heard the same myopic litany — ‘a massive wildfire outbreak ongoing in Alaska is not abnormal.’ Well, today, all pretense that there was anything normal about the 314 wildfires still raging throughout the state has gone up in a cloud of boreal forest, tundra, and thawed permafrost emitted smoke.

As of 6:28 AM Alaska time today, 1,912,000 acres had burned in Alaska since the start of the year. That’s roughly 1,800,000 more acres burned than just before the current wildfire outbreak started on June 18th and 497,000 more acres burned over just the last 24 hour period alone. By comparison, the previous worst ever June fire outbreak for Alaska during 2004 burned less than 1,200,000 acres of the Arctic state.

Wildfires now burning in Alaska

(Alaska Interagency Center map of currently active wildfires now burning in Alaska.)

With 42 hours left in June and with more than 300 fires still active, it’s pretty clear that the current fire season is a historic, unprecedented, record-shattering event. One that will almost certainly break the 2 million acre mark and may show double the over-all previous record burning during June of 2004. An excessive new record that is occurring in the ominous context of the hottest year in the global climate record and a vastly irresponsible dumping of 50 billion tons of heat-trapping, CO2 equivalent (of which 32 billion tons is CO2) gasses into the atmosphere through fossil fuel burning and related industry each and every year.

As Alaska Experiences Worst Ever Burning for June, Northwest Territory Lights Up

As Alaska burned through half a million acres of forest in just one day, a massive heatwave was also setting off extreme wildfires throughout northwest Canada. It was the same heatwave that broke new temperature records all across Washington, and the mountain west. Temperatures in places like Walla, Walla Washington hit 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 Celsius) on Sunday — breaking the previous all time June temperature record for the day by 4 degrees (2.2 C). A pulse of heat rising off the back of a strengthening El Nino in the Pacific, running all the way up the Western Seaboard and Mountains of the US and driving deep into northwestern Canada.

wildfires burning near great slave lake

(Massive plumes of smoke emitting from wildfires burning near Great Slave Lake in Northwest Territory, Canada on Sunday. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 350 miles. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

The added heat riled wildfires burning throughout much of the permafrost zone in Canada, pushing blazes to explosive size and dumping massive plumes of smoke into an atmosphere already heavily laden with Alaska’s brown carbon pulse. In the above LANCE-MODIS image we can see about 30 of these fires burning away near Great Slave Lake. Note that some of the fire fronts in the above image are more than 15 miles long.

Given the satellite assessment from yesterday, it appears that the same excessive heat, dryness and permafrost thaw that has set off record fires for Alaska during June is now also in play for Canada. Initial reports from Canada’ Interagency Fire Center confirm this assessment with 138 new fires erupting in just the past 24 hours alone and more than 2,250,000 acres burned for the country since the start of 2015. As a result of the excessive Arctic heat (associated with both El Nino and overall human warming) and extreme rate of new fire starts, we are at risk of seeing unpecedented wildfire conditions continuing to spread throughout this warming, vulnerable Arctic region.

UPDATE: Preliminary numbers for acres burned in Alaska, according to Interagency Center reports have been downgraded somewhat to greater than 1.6 million total acres burned. These totals are still in record range with between 200,000 to 300,000 acres burned each day. It seems, given the unprecedented number and intensity of fires now burning (currently 300) in AK that there’s some difficulty getting an accurate assessment of conditions on the ground. The downgrade is somewhat good news in light of an overall difficult and record fire season for Alaska. Will keep updating as new information becomes available.

Links:

Alaska Interagency Coordination Center

Alaska Forestry Service Facebook Page

Canada Interagency Forest Fire Center

Over A Million Acres Burned in June

NASA LANCE-MODIS

113 in Walla, Walla? Historic Washington Heatwave Shatters Records

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to Greg

Hat Tip to DT Lange

(Please help support public, government-funded climate change resiliency efforts like those aided by various interagency fire centers within the US and Canada in addition to the critically valuable satellite tracking provided by the amazing scientific and research teams at NASA.)

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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

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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