Peat fires, like those raging in Siberia, will become more common in Canada

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Among the most disturbing images of 2020 – alongside the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic – are photos of forest fires in the Siberian region of Russia.The notion of forest fires in Siberia, a region known for its windy and snowy landscapes, seems counter-intuitive. The recent fires were sparked by a record-breaking heat wave in the Russian Arctic, but these aren’t your typical wildfires.

They are actually peat fires, a natural phenomenon that scientists have only recently begun to understand. – and one of them is expected to become a growing concern in Canada.

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Peat, the moist, mossy substance that covers the soil of most arctic ecosystems and Canada’s boreal forests, is made up of decaying biomass from plants, animals and microbes and plays a key role in forest management. temperature.

“It adds to the beauty of Canadian landscapes, but it also regulates the Earth’s climate,” said Merritt Turetsky, ecosystem ecologist and director of the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“For thousands of years, [peat] has been a natural store of carbon – removing carbon and keeping it out of the atmosphere. ”

WATCH | Arctic fires have a global impact:

Siberia is normally one of the coldest places on earth, but a recent heat wave is stoking large forest fires and raising concerns about what it signals for climate change. 2:11

Carbon is preserved naturally in these areas – provided, as Turetsky put it, “we can keep the peat cool and moist.”

But due to climate change, peatlands are getting hotter and drier, and therefore more susceptible to the kind of fires we are seeing in Siberia.

“We now know that peatlands around the world, from the Arctic to the tropics, are indeed vulnerable to forest fires,” Turetsky said.

Calling the burning of peat one of the most important environmental issues, Turetsky said that “the Arctic literally has a fever and is literally on fire.”

Difficult to extinguish

Peat fires release not only CO2, but other more potent greenhouse gases such as methane, as well as particulate matter, “which is the substance that gets into our lungs, that can cause respiratory diseases and asthma attacks, ”Turetsky said.

A study published earlier this year in the journal Nature showed that peatlands in Canada are drying up and fires will become more frequent in the future.

A recent example is the 2018 Alkali Lake wildfire in British Columbia, which burned down the Tahltan Nation community of Telegraph Creek.

Chad Thomas, a member of the Tahltan First Nation and CEO of Yukon First Nations Wildfire, a group of Indigenous firefighters who have worked in Canada and abroad, said peat fires are more difficult to manage than wildfires more conventional.

The Alkali Lake fire in 2018 caused significant damage to the community of Telegraph Creek, British Columbia, home to the Tahltan First Nation. (Trina Anne Gleason-Zubek)

On the one hand, unlike crown fires, which occur in trees, peat fires largely occur underground. Because heat can be trapped several feet below the forest floor, peat fires can be “very difficult to put out,” Thomas said.

“Fires can seep underground and reappear along your lines of control. ”

It means “there are a lot of times when you go walking in an area where the fire is going through … and you accidentally walk into an ash pit that looks cool but is actually very hot below. ”

Turetsky said the behavior of peat fires can also lead to “zombie fires,” a concept that has its origins in “stories of northerners who have detected and taken pictures of smoke spreading through accumulations of snow. “.

She said zombie fires represent “conditions of conservation,” when fires that burn late in the summer season go underground, burn deep into the peat layer and continue to burn, often throughout the season. winter.

“Sometimes when spring comes and the snow melts… these zombie fires can rise to the surface and rekindle like a new fire. “

Peat fires are “a monster”

Guillermo Rein, professor of fire science at Imperial College London, said that because a peat fire is more often characterized by smoke than flames, “it is not visually appealing or fascinating” for the average person.

But he underlines that it is “a monster in the damage which it can produce”.

Kidney is part of a team designing an early detection system for peat fires. Using satellites and drones, they are developing technology to monitor heat, radiation and gases emanating from underground fires so that fire management teams can identify them sooner.

As little is known about peat fires, federal and provincial researchers in Canada are carrying out controlled burns in some peatlands to study the behavior of these fires.

Dan Thompson, a forest fire science researcher at Natural Resources Canada, said that although it is still a learning process, they have determined that one thing is that, as peatlands grow more trees and as areas become more shaded, the moss becomes drier, making it more vulnerable to Fire.

Sophie Wilkinson, postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University in Hamilton, studies the effects of forest fires in peatlands. (Submitted by Sophie Wilkinson)

A wetter, soggy moss – known as sphagnum moss – is preferable, he said, because it soaks up so much water, creating natural firebreaks.

Once a bog has burned down, it can take over a generation for it to return to its original soggy state. Because of this timeline, researchers are looking for ways to speed up the process.

One way to do this is by transplanting moss – by taking disks of healthy peat and planting them in areas desiccated by fire and heat.

Sophie Wilkinson, a postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University in Hamilton who has studied the effects of forest fires in peatlands, said transplant experiments have been promising so far, although more research remains to be done.

“We want to restore these bogs to a fire-resistant state,” said Wilkinson, “so that if and when a forest fire were to sweep this landscape again, these bogs could serve as a firebreak… rather than a firebreak. spread this fire across the landscape. . ”

With files from Sonya Buyting and Emily Rendell-Watson

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