Wildfires are ravaging parts of the Arctic Circle, with areas of Siberia, Alaska, Greenland and Canada engulfed in flames and smoke.
Satellite images show that the plumes of smoke from the fires, many caused by dry storms in hot weather, can be seen from space.
Scientists from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) said they are bracing themselves for more intense fire activity after an unusually warm spring, and after seeing signals of heat anomaly sources from satellite images.
Following “unprecedented” fires last year in some areas of the northern hemisphere, CAMS scientists have taken a first look at Arctic Circle wildfires for 2020 using data from the Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS).
The system uses observations from satellite-based sensors to provide daily estimates of emissions and information about the fires’ intensity, which are then compared with the average of previous years to build up a longer-term picture.
They have observed “fairly typical” fire activity for the region, but this is expected to increase in the next few weeks.
Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at CAMS, told Yahoo News UK: “Larger wildfires in the high Arctic can, if they burn in the same way that they did last summer, persist for many weeks.
“The consequences for the planet are that the burn scars they cause, and the possible deposition of soot on Arctic sea ice, is changing the surface albedo and further enhancing Arctic climate change, which we know is changing at a faster rate than the rest of the planet.”
The extent of vegetation burning across the Arctic in summer 2019 drew global attention. By late July the slow-burning, long-duration fires had released 100m tonnes of carbon, an amount similar to the annual output of countries like Belgium, Kuwait or Nigeria. By the middle of August, the smoke cloud covered an area larger than the EU.
An extraordinary 32℃ heatwave fuelled a particularly intense fire season in Alaska that released roughly three times more carbon than the US state emits each year from burning fossil fuels.
The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) described last year’s fires as “unprecedented” and warned of the enormous impact they would have on CO2 levels contributing to the climate crisis.
The WMO said: “Although wildfires are common in the northern hemisphere between May and October, the latitude and intensity of these fires, as well as the length of time that they have been burning for, has been particularly unusual.
“The ongoing Arctic fires have been most severe in Alaska and Siberia, where some have been large enough to cover almost 100,000 football pitches, or the whole of Lanzarote.
“In Alberta, Canada, one fire is estimated to have been bigger than 300,000 pitches. In Alaska alone, Cams has registered almost 400 wildfires this year, with new ones igniting every day.”
Parrington added: “The fact that so many intense wildfires can burn in the Arctic Circle, a region which many people will think of as being frozen, indicates that the rapidly changing climate in that part of the world is providing the right conditions for fires to burn for many weeks following an ignition.
“Firstly, such large fires produce a lot of air pollutant which can affect air quality locally and thousands of kilometres downwind.
“Also from a climate point-of-view, deposition of soot or black carbon on the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean will affect the albedo and could accelerate warming and, as some of these fires are known to be burning in peatlands, they are irreversibly releasing carbon into the atmosphere which has been stored for tens of thousands of years.”
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The CAMS website says: “Wildfires are a natural phenomenon in the eco-cycle and contribute to a healthy ecosystem, as the burnt ground leaves a fertile room for new flora to grow. Hot and dry conditions can increase the intensity of the fires, driving them to an intensity ‘above normal’, often causing a risk for human health.”
CAMS has no data that link wildfires to climate change directly, but the website advises: “High-intensity fires have been increasing in frequency in some parts of the world, partly as a result of extreme weather events like long-term drought conditions, as hot and dry conditions represent one of the biggest risk factors.”
The WMO added: “The northern part of the world is warming faster than the planet as a whole. That heat is drying out forests and making them more susceptible to burn. A recent study found Earth’s boreal forests are now burning at a rate unseen in at least 10,000 years.”