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Wildfires in the Arctic Circle Break Records, Release 244 Megatons of CO2 Into the Atmosphere

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Sep 11, 2020

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Image credit: NPS Climate Change Response/Flickr

More than 100 fires have been burning across the Arctic Circle — from Russia to Alaska, U.S — since early June. These fires have broken all records regarding wildfire scope and duration, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Program.

The Arctic Circle has a particular time frame every year — May to October — when it is susceptible to wildfires, with the worst month being July. However, in June 2020 itself, the fires released around 50 megatons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. As of now, the wildfires have released a total of 244 megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere (in comparison to 181 megatons in 2019).

“The high figure for wildfires last year caught us by surprise, so it was even more surprising to see this year’s figures so much higher still,” Mark Parrington, senior scientist at Copernicus, told BBC News.

Wildfires can be natural or man-made disasters that pose a serious threat to human life and ecosystems. “High-intensity wildfires have been increasing in frequency, partly as a result of extreme weather driven by climate change, with hot and dry conditions being one of the biggest risk factors. In addition, wildfires are responsible for far greater air pollution than industrial emissions as they produce a combination of particulates, carbon monoxide and other pollutants,” the Copernicus Program wrote in a statement.


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This rapid increase in CO2 emissions from the Arctic wildfires is linked to the fires having burnt throughout winter under the ice and snow and on permafrost peatlands (a thick layer of frozen dead vegetation remains). A surface fire that burns through the permafrost can release highly flammable gases like methane, which moves the fire from the surface to deep underground.This starts a vicious cycle.

Peatlands are carbon sinks, which means they absorb far more carbon than they release and thus, decrease the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Damaging or burning these peatlands will lead to a massive release of CO2 into the atmosphere — further exacerbating global warming. As of now, both burning peatlands and burning vegetation in the Arctic have led to the release of this massive amount of CO2 into the atmosphere — which is a major reason why Arctic wildfires released more than 200 megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

As of now, government authorities in areas like Russia are attempting to reduce the fires. Though surface fires can be contained, underground fires are harder to put out and last longer. Curbing peat fires requires overwhelming effort — both to detect the fire and to transport large quantities of water to inaccessible regions to curb the fire. Doing both detecting and fighting peat fires early is “overwhelmingly important,” according to what Guillermo Rein, a peat fire researcher at Imperial College in the United Kingdom tells Ensia, because if they become too big, no water supply other than rain can fight them.

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Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is the senior culture writer at The Swaddle, with an interest in cultural analysis, environment, and the science of mental health.  Write to her using aditi@theswaddle.com, or find her on social media @aditimurti.

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