European Arctic Faces Early Wildfire Season, Zombie Fires

May 13th Land Temperatures   Satellite Image: (c) European Union Copernicus

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Record hot temperatures are wreaking havoc in northern Europe as wildfires spark in Siberia. Some experts say that this early fire season is the continuance of the 2020 season and that some “zombie fires” were never truly put out. Last week, 1.7 million Siberian residents were put under severe “black sky” air quality warnings due to smoke from nearby wildfires. The findings are particularly foreboding for the Arctic, where record high temperatures and rapidly melting glaciers have signaled irreversible climate damage. Some parts of the Arctic are recording record springtime temperatures this year.

Why This Matters: The Arctic is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the world. The 2019-2020 Arctic Meteorological year was the second-warmest on record for land surface temperatures, and 9 of the last 10 years have seen Arctic temperatures at least one degree Celsius above average. This warming is melting glaciers and permafrost, contributing to sea-level rise and the loss of crucial carbon sinks, while Arctic species like Polar bears are falling victim to habitat loss. While the nations of the world work to reduce their emissions, protections are desperately needed for the people and wildlife that rely on the Arctic, whose rapidly changing surroundings will never be the same.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat…

As summer approaches, officials are closely monitoring the now raging wildfires. Images gathered from the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites found a cluster of wildfires outside a rural Siberian region called Oymyakon, widely considered one of the coldest places on earth. The images also showed wildfires cropping up even in areas with remaining snow cover. Experts worry about carbon emissions caused by the Arctic wildfires, which last year released enough carbon to equal Spain’s carbon emissions. It’s not just forests that are burning, it’s permafrost too. Siberia is covered in a carbon-rich soil called peat, which releases its carbon stores when burned. Unfortunately, last year’s fires never went out but instead continued burning deep beneath the surface, waiting to spring out once surface temperatures rose. This is one of many challenges facing firefighters in the region, who must cover 5 million square miles of Siberia.

While Siberia struggles with wildfires, other Arctic regions are experiencing volatile temperatures as well. Norway’s Svalbard Island reached record-high temperatures this past November, reaching 49 degrees Fahrenheit. Officials in Moscow are warning residents that temperatures may hit 86 degrees Fahrenheit this week. In the U.S., a “megadrought” is pushing fires further east and further north, causing early wildfire seasons in regions underprepared for the damage. For now, it seems like deforestation, which rose in 2020 despite COVID-19, may continue to rise in 2021 as wildfires rage stronger.

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