Fire in the Land of Ice: Massive Wildfires Rage Over Greenland and Siberia

Like never before, regions we typically associate with cold and ice are being over-run by wildfires. It’s a situation brought on by human-caused climate change. For our continued burning of fossil fuels is causing the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the rest of the globe. Under this oppressive influx of heat, the permafrost is thawing. And the fragile plants, frozen lands, and soils dependent on much cooler conditions simply cannot cope. Increasingly, and on greater and greater scales, they are burning.

(Large Greenland fire captured by NASA’s Earth Observatory on August 7th.)

This past week, an outlandish wildfire ignited about 100 miles southwest of Ilulissat near the western coast of Greenland. The fire, visible by satellite, cast a long smoke plume even as it exploded into fierce intensity. The odd blaze subsequently generated a rash of expert chatter among Arctic observers on twitter even as news sources like NPR scrambled for contextual information.

Due to typically very low fire incidence, Greenland lacks a national forest fire information center. However, widespread satellite reports and news based observation provide a pretty clear context for this odd event. According to news reports from NPR, the fire itself is a complex of multiple blazes — the largest of which has expanded to 3,000 acres. It’s a massive forest fire. And it’s exceptionally odd seeing such a blaze light up in typically-frozen Greenland.

(Time lapse of massive Greenland wildfire provided by Meteos.)

The fire ignited as temperatures rose to near 70 degrees (F) across the region. A range that is well above average for this Arctic zone. And brisk, down-sloping winds likely helped to speed the fire’s initial rapid expansion.

Fires do occur at times in Greenland. But they are usually rare and small. This year’s fires, on the other hand, have been exceptional. Preliminary satellite observation indicates that as much as 8 times the typical number of active fires have ignited so far in Greenland during 2017. And there is every indication that this particular fire complex is the largest ever recorded on an island that is mostly blanketed by thousands of feet of ice.

(Analysis of active wildfire pixels in Greenland satellite analysis indicates a substantially increased rate of burning in 2017.)

The fire itself is burning through peatlands — which contain deep, carbon-rich soils. In many regions, thawed permafrost ultimately becomes peat. In addition, peat itself is very sensitive to climate change related warming. For as exceptional heat dries the peat, it becomes a deep, dense fuel for fires. When the fires ultimately come, they can eat far into the peat soils — burning 3 feet or more beneath the ground.

Though not as bad as fossil fuel burning for the climate system, peat fires do provide a troubling amplifying feedback to human-caused climate change if they become widespread and if large permafrost zones thaw into peat and subsequently burn. One researcher noted to the New York Times last year that: “It’s carbon that has accumulated over several thousands of years. If it were to be released, the global CO2 concentration would be much higher.”

(Fires burning near the melting Greenland Ice Sheet are likely in a recently thawed permafrost zone. Permafrost contains a massive carbon store that if released will further exacerbate human-caused warming. Wildfires are one mechanism promoting that release. And as Arctic lands thaw and warm, more large fires are popping up across the Arctic. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

Jessica L. McCarty, an Assistant Professor of Geography at Miami University provides further context regarding the massive Greenland fires:

“They are likely occurring in areas of degraded permafrost, which are predicted to have high thaw rates between now and 2050 with some evidence of current melt near Sisimiut. Fires in the High Northern Latitudes release significant CO2, CH4, N20, and black carbon. A fire this close to the Greenland Ice Shelf is likely to deposit additional black carbon on the ice, further speeding up the melt.”

Siberian Wildfires Now Extremely Intense

In many places throughout the Arctic, rapidly warmed and dried peatlands, forests and previously frozen permafrost zones are also burning. In Siberia the inky smoke plumes from massive fires today stretch for nearly 2,000 miles. Numerous fire complexes that dwarf the odd Greenland blaze are plainly visible in the satellite picture.

(The smoke plume in this image would blanket most of Greenland. Massive wildfires belch giant plumes of inky smoke over Siberia and the Arctic Ocean on August 9th. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 1,200 miles. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

The fires come with extreme heat along a high pressure ridge zone stretching from Lake Baikal all the way to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Today, temperatures in this Arctic and near Arctic region are ranging from 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit or as much as 35 degrees (F) above average.

With so much Arctic warming and thawing now ongoing, massive fires have become a frequent occurrence during summertime in Siberia recently. And this year, Russia has resorted to cloud seeding in an apparently fruitless attempt to suppress the enormous blazes.

Most of today’s fires are burning in Yakutia — which contains one of the largest global stores of permafrost carbon in the world. During recent years, permafrost has more and more rapidly thawed through this zone — providing a larger and larger store of peat-like fuels for the kinds of fires we are seeing today.

Links:

NASA Worldview

A Massive Wildfire is Now Burning in Greenland

Wildfire in Greenland

Wildfires are Burning in Greenland

Greenland Hit by Largest Wildfire on Record

Making Rain to Extinguish Wildfires

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat tip to Vic

Hat tip to Greg

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

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

Polar Jet Stream Wrecked By Climate Change Fuels Unprecedented Wildfires Over Canada and Siberia

This year, the warm air invasion started early. A high amplitude ridge in the Jet Stream stretching for thousands of miles over the temperate Pacific and on up into Alaska and the Chukchi Sea slowly drifted eastward. Reinforced by a powerful bank of blocking high pressure systems over the northeastern Pacific, this ridge settled over Canada’s Northwest Territory in a zone from the Mackenzie Delta and over a broad region east and south. From mid June onward, temperatures in the 70s, 80s and even low 90s dominated sections of this Arctic region.

The heat built and built, drying the shallow soil zone over the thawing permafrost creating a tinder-dry bed layer waiting for the lightning strikes that were bound to follow in the abnormal Arctic heat.

By late June, major fire complexes had erupted over the region. Through early and mid July, these massive systems expanded even as the anomalous heat dome tightened its grip. Today, the fires in Northwestern Canada have reached a horrific intensity and one, the Birch Complex fire, alone has now consumed more than a quarter of a million acres.

According to reports from Canada’s Interagency Fire Center, total acres burned to date are more than six times that of a typical year. A rate of burning that, according to a recent scientific study, is unprecedented not just for this century, but for any period in Canada’s basement forest record over the last 10,000 years.

Birch Creek Fire Complex Aerial close-up of Birch Creek Fire complex

(Thunderstorm? No. Smoke from a major volcanic eruption injecting ash into the stratosphere? No. The upper frame shot is an aerial photo taken of the Birch Creek Fire Complex on July 14, 2014 from a distance of about 30 miles away. It is just one of the massive fires now raging in the Northwest Territory region of Canada. A closer picture, taken from a few miles out, reveals the flaming base of a massive smoke plume. Image source: NWT Fire Facebook.)

From helicopter and airplane, the volume of smoke pouring out of these massive tundra and boreal forest fires is amazing, appearing to mimic major thunderstorm complexes or volcanic eruptions. Closer shots reveal towering walls of flame casting billows of smoke thousands of feet into the air above.

The smoke from these fires, now numbering in excess of 186 separate blazes, is becoming entrained in the weakening circumpolar Jet Stream. The steely gray billows now trail in a massive cloud of heat-trapping black carbon that stretches more than 2000 miles south and east. Its southern-most reaches have left residents of the northwestern and north-central US smelling smoke for weeks, now. Meanwhile, the cloud’s eastern-most reaches approach Baffin Bay and the increasingly vulnerable ice sheets of Greenland.

Smoke from Canadian Wildfires drifts toward Greenland

(Satellite shot of smoke from massive fire complexes over Canada spreading eastward. Black carbon and related CO2 emissions from forest fires can serve as a powerful amplifying feedback to already dangerous human-caused climate change. Image source: NASA/LANCE-MODIS.)

Across the Arctic, Siberia Also Burns

As media attention focuses on the admittedly horrific fires of unprecedented magnitude raging over Canada, a second region of less well covered but possibly even more extensive blazes burns on the other side of the Arctic Ocean throughout the boreal forest and tundra zones of Central Siberia in Russia.

There, record heat that settled in during winter time never left, remaining in place throughout summer and peaking in the range of 80-90 degree Arctic temperatures over the past couple of weeks. Over the last seven days, massive fires have erupted which, from the satellite vantage, appear about as energetic as the very intense blazes that ripped through Siberia during the record summer fire year of 2012. It is a set of extreme conditions we’ve been warning could break out ever since March and April when intense early season fires ripped through the Lake Baikal and Southern Yedoma regions.

Now, what appears to be more than 200 fires are belching out very thick plumes of smoke stretching for more than 2000 miles over North-Central Siberia and on into the recently ice-free zone of the Laptev Sea:

Sea of Smoke and Fire From Lake Baikal to Arctic Ocean

(Massive sea of smoke and fire stretching from Lake Baikal and northeast over Central Siberia and on into the Arctic Ocean. Image source: NASA/LANCE-MODIS.)

As with the other set of fires in Canada, the smoke from these massive blazes is entraining in the Jet Stream and stretching across Arctic regions. An ominous blanket of steely gray for the roof of the world and yet one more potential amplifying heat feedback the Arctic certainly does not need.

Potential Amplifying Feedbacks in Context

During recent years, scientists have been concerned by what appears to be an increased waviness and northward retreat of the northern hemisphere Jet Stream. This retreat and proliferation of ridge and trough patterns is thought to be a result of a combined loss of snow and sea ice coverage over the past century and increasing over the past few decades. In 2012, sea ice coverage fell to as low as 55% below 1979 levels with volume dropping as low as 80% below previous values. Over the past seven years, not one day has seen sea ice at average levels for the late 20th Century in the north.

Meanwhile, northern polar temperatures have risen very rapidly under the rapidly rising human greenhouse gas heat forcing, increasing by 0.5 C per decade or about double the global average. It is this combination of conditions that set the stage for fixed ridges over both Russia and Canada creating extreme risk for extraordinary fires.

image

(Weak and wavy polar jet stream on July 17, 2014 shows fixed ridges over the Northwest Territory, Central and Eastern Siberia, Northern Europe and the adjacent North Atlantic and Arctic. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data Source: NOAA GFS and various.)

Should both the current sets of fires continue to rage under anomalous high amplitude jet stream waves setting off extreme heat in these Arctic regions, it is possible that large clouds of heat absorbing black carbon could ring the Arctic in a kind of hot halo. The dark smoke particles in the atmosphere would trap more heat locally even as they rained down to cover both sea ice and ice sheets. With the Canadian fires, deposition and snow darkening are a likely result, especially along the western regions of the Greenland Ice Sheet — zones that have already seen a multiplication of melt ponds and increasing glacial destabilization over recent years.

Recent scientific studies have also highlighted the possibility that human-caused climate change is increasing high amplitude jet stream ridge patterns that are transporting more and more heat into Arctic tundra and boreal forest regions. These regions are more vulnerable to fires due to the fact that trees in boreal forest have uniform characteristics that favor burning and tend to rapidly ignite and spread once the upper branches become involved. The unfrozen soil features a narrow basement layer above tundra which dries more rapidly than the soils of more temperate areas, providing tinder fuel to aid in the initial ignition by lightning strike. Thawing, deeper tundra, when dried, is a meters-deep pile of fuel that has accumulated for thousands of years — a kind of peat-like layer that can smolder and re-ignite fires that burn over very long periods. It is this volatile and expanding basement zone that is cause for serious concern and greatly increases the potential fire hazard for thousands of miles of thawing tundra going forward.

Overall, both boreal forest and thawing tundra provide an extraordinary potential fuel for very large fire complexes as the Arctic continues to warm under the human greenhouse gas forcing. And though climate models are in general agreement that the frequency of fires in tundra regions will increase, doubling or more by the end of this century, it is uncertain how extensive and explosive such an increase would be given the high volume of fuel available. Direct and large-scale burning of these stores, which in tundra alone house about 1,500 gigatons of carbon, could provide a major climate and Earth System response to the already powerful human heat forcing.

Though the science at this point is uncertain, we observe very large and unprecedented fire outbreaks with increasing frequency:

“I think it’s really important for us to take advantage of studying these big disturbance events,” noted Dr. Jill Johnstone in a recent interview. “Because, if we can say anything, we can say that we think they’re going to be more common.”

UPDATE:

The smoke plume over North America has now expanded to cover a large section of the continental land mass. As you can see in the image below provided by NOAA, the smoke plume now stretches from the fire zones in the Northwest Territory (fires indicated by red dots), British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California across much of the North American continent extending as far to the north and east as the southern tip of Greenland and as far to the south and east as Maryland, West Virgina and Tennessee:

Smoke Plume

(Massive North American Smoke Plume fed by Tundra and Western Forest Fires. Image source NOAA.)

As of today and yesterday (17 and 18 July) major wildfires continued to burn over much of the Northwest Territory of Canada even as these very large and unprecedented fire complexes were joined by massive outbreaks in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. Fire outbreaks were so extreme in both Washington and Oregon that state officials there were forced to declare states of emergency and seek federal assistance for dealing with the ongoing disasters.

You can see the large, steely-gray smoke plumes from these fires in the LANCE MODIS image taken by NASA yesterday in the satellite shot below:

Massive fire complexes in Washington, Oregon and BC

(Massive wildfires in Washington and Oregon prompt officials to issue disaster warnings. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

The smoke has become so pervasive that commenter James Cole has made some rather stark observations from Northern Minnesota:

A sky filled with grey haze, you can hardly tell there is a sun up there. No clouds in the sky, but the haze is incredible. Surely from the great Canadian fires!

Due to black carbon loading, such a large cloud of smoke may result in substantial temperature spikes over regions affected. The heat dome over the US West is expected to expand into the central and northern US this weekend with some readings there predicted to reach the 100s. Already, the southwestern heat is spreading north and eastward under the dome of heat-intensifying smoke with a broad area of upper 80s and lower 90s stretching all the way to the southern shores of Hudson Bay.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Arctic, the expanse of wildfires continued to widen with the smoke plume now covering over 2,500 miles and with multiple very large blazes continuing over Central and Northeastern Siberia. Atmospheric black carbon and methane loading (more in a new post) likely contributed to temperatures in the range of 95 degrees F (35 C) near the shores of the Arctic Ocean’s Laptev Sea yesterday as recorded in the following screen capture from Earth Nullschool/GFS:

image

(35 C temperature [95 F]  recorded in northeastern Siberia near the Laptev Sea at about 12:30 AM EST on July 18. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data Source: NOAA/GFS.)

Links:

Fires in Northwest Territories in Line with Unprecedented Burn

What Fires in the Northwest Territories Say About Climate Change

Recent Burning of Boreal Forest Exceeds Fire Regime Limits of Past 10,000 Years (PNAS)

NWT Fire Facebook

NASA/LANCE-MODIS

Earth Nullschool

NOAA GFS

Arctic’s Boreal Forests Burning at Unprecedented Rate

Large Particles From Wildfire Soot Found to Trap 90 Percent More Heat Than Small Particles

North American Smoke Plume Tracking by NOAA

Hat tip to Wili

Hat tip to James Cole

 

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