Massive fires burning in the Arctic are releasing so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere right now that they’ll make future conditions even warmer and drier. That will lead to even worse Arctic fires, which will release even more carbon into the atmosphere, which will lead to… well, you get the idea.
“The magnitude is unprecedented in the 16-year satellite record,” Thomas Smith, a researcher at the London School of Economics, told USA Today. “The fires appear to be farther north than usual, and some appear to have ignited peat soils.”
The warmer, drier conditions are dehydrating vast peat fields across the region. Not only do those represent thousands of years’ worth of stored carbon, but once ignited, they can continue to burn underground, even during Arctic winters, for years and maybe even decades.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, carbon dioxide isn’t the only thing we have to worry about. Particulates released into the atmosphere in smoke from the fires can trap heat, magnifying the effects of a warming climate. When those particulates settle onto snow and ice, they decrease their reflectivity, making them melt faster, contributing to even more warming.
Those same particulates are harmful to human health. Fires in Siberia have already burned over 46,300 square miles this year, and another 11,500 square miles are currently ablaze. Conditions across the region are apparently so bad that some 900,000 residents have signed a petition calling on the Russian government to declare a state of emergency and attempt to extinguish the fires. Such conditions have even captured the attention of President Trump, who reportedly reached out to Vladimir Putin to offer U.S. aid with fighting the fires.
The European Union’s atmosphere monitoring service calculates that fires above the Arctic Circle emitted 50 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in June alone (a month before what used to be the start of the typical fire season). That figure is equivalent to Sweden’s total emissions for an entire year, and it’s more than what was released by June fires in the Arctic between 2010 and 2018 combined. In July, the fires emitted 79 megatons of carbon dioxide; double the previous record for a single month, which was set back in 2004.
“It is unusual to see fires of this scale and duration at such high latitudes in June,” writes the E.U.’s wildfire expert, Mark Parrington. “But temperatures in the Arctic have been increasing at a much faster rate than the global average and warmer conditions encourage fires to grow and persist once they have been ignited.”
This year’s Arctic megafires are exceeding predictions. A study conducted in 2012 warned that up to 3,220 square miles could burn in Alaska each year by 2099. As of July 31, already 3,690 square miles have burned, and we’re only partway through the state's fire season.
Scientists estimate that the Arctic contains fully 50 percent of the planet’s soil carbon, which these fires are now releasing into the atmosphere. The fear of climate scientists is that, if enough carbon is released, it could create a tipping point whereby we transition from a slow increase in global temperatures to a fast one, prompting disastrous results.
Do these fires herald that moment? There’s disagreement in the scientific community. One researcher was prepared to use that phrase in an interview with Gizmodo. But Thomas Smith warned against doing so. “A tipping point would suggest that the situation is irreversible, which is not the case,” he told the website. Smith suggests that the term “positive feedback cycle” could be more apt.
Regardless of the terminology, everyone seems to be able to agree on one thing: these fires are only going to get worse.