‘Zombie fires’ fuel extremely high carbon emissions in the Arctic

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In early May, as the spring thaw began to begin in northern Siberia, Mark Parrington spotted something strange in images captured by instruments aboard NASA’s Terra satellite. Numerous red dots stood out, indicating some sort of thermal anomaly over a large white expanse. Thomas Smith, assistant professor of environmental geography at the London School of Economics, quickly noticed that the hotspots were located in areas that had burned down in the epic arctic fires last year.

“Whatever (clearing? Natural?) They happened around the same time last year,” Smith wrote, posting a photo of the same location from 2019. “Zombie fires?” Parrington replied. And so was born a new “catchy” name for what fire managers usually refer to as “persistent or overwintering fires”. The name, however, is synonymous with the real danger these fires cause. Once fires are put out on the surface, they can continue to burn underground, scorching through peat and other organic material. Fueled by methane and isolated by snow, they can burn all winter. When temperatures start to rise in the spring and the soil dries up, fires can reignite above the ground.

Copernicus Sentinel data shows a number of fires, producing plumes of smoke. The smoke carried air pollution to the regions of Kemerovo, Tomsk, Novosibirsk and Altai. (July 28, 2019)

European Space Agency

Monitor the Arctic Circle

It was the worst year on record for arctic forest fires, since surveillance began 17 years ago. In the first half of July, as much carbon was released as a country the size of Cuba or Tunisia releases in a year. The plumes of smoke were so large that they covered the equivalent of over a third of Canada. The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), implemented by the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) on behalf of the European Union, has tracked the emissions and activity of more than 100 Forest fires occurring across the Arctic Circle in the Sakha Republic of Siberia and Alaska for several months. Besides the forest fires in Siberia and Alaska, another wildfire in northern Alberta, Canada was impressive in its size and intensity. The Chuckegg Creek fire in northern Alberta burned more than 1,351 square miles (350,134 hectares) and took three months to contain, according to Global News Canada.

“Obviously, this is worrying,” Copernicus lead scientist Mark Parrington told the BBC, according to Live Science. “We really weren’t expecting to see these levels of wildfires yet. “The destruction of peat by fire is disturbing for many reasons,” said Dorothy Peteet, senior research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. “As fires burn the upper layers of peat, the depth of the permafrost can deepen, further oxidizing the underlying peat. Copernicus estimates that between January and August 2020, the fires released 244 megatons of carbon. That’s more carbon than what was released in Vietnam for the whole year in 2017.

Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data [2020], edited by Pierre Markuse Siberian forest fire in the Arctic Circle of the Republic of Sakha, Russia (Lat: 68.50194, Lng: 132.60075) – May 19, 2020 The image is approximately 18 kilometers wide.

Pierre Markuse (CC BY 2.0)

Parrington says, “We know that temperatures in the Arctic have been rising at a faster rate than the global average, and warmer / drier conditions will provide the right conditions for fires to develop when they start. Data from our Global Fire Assimilation System shows that fires typically occur in the Arctic Circle during July and August, so it is unusual to see fires of this magnitude and duration in June. “” Our monitoring is important to raise awareness on a larger scale of the impacts of forest fires and smoke emissions that can help organizations, businesses and individuals to plan ahead against the effects of air pollution. “



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