‘Zombie Fires’ May Have Sparked Record High Carbon Emissions in the Arctic

Increasing temperatures due to climate change and wildfires may be propelling the region into a fiery new normal

Aerial view of forest fire in central Yakutia, Russia
Yakutia [pictured] is 83.4 percent forested, making it "one of the most fire-hazardous Russian regions. Photo by Yevgeny Sofroneyev\TASS via Getty Images

Wildfires scorching the Arctic have already spewed a third more planet-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the region emitted in the entirety of 2019, reports Roger Harrabin for BBC News.

Between January and the end of August, fires in the Arctic sent 244 megatons of carbon skyward, compared to 181 megatons in the whole of 2019, itself a record high, according to satellite monitoring from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.

Much of the burning occurred in Russia’s Sakha Republic amid blistering heatwaves that saw the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk hit 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest temperature ever documented above the Arctic Circle, reported Andrew Freedman of the Washington Post in June.

According to Copernicus, what started the fires is hard to pinpoint, but some of the early season blazes are thought to have been set by so-called “zombie fires” that sprang to life after smoldering underground through the winter.

Because Arctic soils are often densely packed with flammable organic matter, such as peat, above ground fires that burn themselves out can leave the ground smoldering. When winter comes, snow can actually insulate the smoking mat from the cold air above as it consumes peat and pockets of flammable methane gas. These conditions can sometimes allow a zombie fire to keep burning until temperatures warm and the snow melts away, reports Kate Wheeling for Eos. Once the snow is gone, a zombie fire can once again ignite aboveground vegetation.

These holdovers from the 2019 fire season may have played a role in kicking off this year’s already record setting Arctic emissions, and the warmer temperatures caused by climate change has primed the landscape for massive, long-burning conflagrations.

"We've known for quite a few years now that the rate of change of temperature and climate variables in the high northern latitude is faster—two to three times faster—than the global average," Mark Parrington, a climate scientist at Copernicus, tells Amy Woodyatt of CNN. "These fires are symptomatic of that: It's warmer, dryer, so the vegetation and fuel is in the right conditions, and so when these fires are being ignited, they are able to burn for a long period of time uninterrupted, and grow as well."

Speaking with BBC News, Parrington says “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.” Adding, “Obviously it’s concerning—we really hadn’t expected to see these levels of wildfires yet.”

Parrington tells Andrew Freedman and Lauren Tierney of the Post that the last two summers of extreme fire activity in the Arctic may signal the start of a new normal for the region. “It’s an indicator that something’s changed in the environment there,” Parrington says.

The alarming figures come as California’s fire season continues to rage, fueled by record setting heat and high winds, report Kari Paul and Joanna Walters for the Guardian. Climate change has made the state drier and hotter over the past 20 years, per the Guardian, a period that has included 15 of the 20 largest wildfires in California’s history.

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