One of the coldest places on earth is on fire – and it’s getting worse

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A summer day in June 2020, a small town in the typically freezing Far East of Russia set a new world record – and not a good one. The temperature exceeded 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit) for the first time in the region above the Arctic Circle. The World Meteorological Organization said the temperature was “more worthy of the Mediterranean than of the Arctic”.

The record temperatures of 2020 in Siberia affected the whole world what scientists knew: the Arctic was warming faster than the rest of the planet, creating devastating consequences like Forest fires.

Two new studies reveal that the extreme fire season in 2020 was no mere anomaly, but rather a pattern we can expect to become frighteningly common in a warming world. These results were published Thursday in the journal Science.

Wildfires will fuel global warming

A figure from the study shows how much of the Siberian Arctic has been burned by forest fires in recent years compared to the historical average, as well as the carbon stored in peatlands – which is released into the atmosphere when wildfires forest occur.Decals and more

The first one study analyzes the relationship between forest fires and warming temperatures in the Siberian Arctic based on almost four decades of satellite data covering the period from 1982 to 2020.

According to the data, the impacts of higher temperatures have increased “significantly” over the past forty years. Higher temperatures melt snow sooner, which stimulates vegetation growth in the Arctic. These climatic conditions provided the abundant fuel needed to spark extremely significant wildfire seasons in 2019 and 2020, which saw above-average temperatures.

“Heat waves like the one in 2020 can dry out vegetation, making plants more flammable and prone to wildfires,” Adrià decalslead author of the study, says Reverse. Descals is a researcher at the Center for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications of the Spanish National Research Council.

As a result, the area burned by forest fires has been seven times higher in 2020 than the average of the previous four decades, damaging an “unprecedented area of ​​peatlands” according to the research. And 2019 and 2020 were the highest burn years in the entire forty-year period, releasing nearly 150 million tons of carbon in the atmosphere.

Peatlands contain carbon-rich plant matter that typically stays frozen in the Arctic, but warming temperatures can melt them — or burn, in the case of wildfires — sending huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. atmosphere. Global warming is driven by such releases of greenhouse gases as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

‘Arctic wildfire emissions are undermining global climate goals,’ researchers warn

Climate change will accelerate extreme wildfires in the Arctic

A graphical illustration showing the extreme burns during the years 2019, 2020 and 2021 compared to the historical average.Schoten et al

The second study takes a closer look at the links between climate change and fires in the Siberian Arctic. The research finds that earlier snowmelt and an unusual arctic polar jet contributed to “unusually hot and dry surface conditions” that generated extreme fire activity in eastern Siberia between 2019 and 2021.

“Earlier snowmelt and increased occurrence of the Arctic frontal jet are linked to climate change,” Zander Veraverbekeco-author of the study and Earth system scientist at VU Amsterdam tells Reverse.

The arctic polar jet is a northern branch of the jet stream – a series of air currents in the atmosphere producing strong winds. Earlier snowmelt and the unusual arctic polar jet must coincide for the extreme fire seasons of 2020 to occur, according to the article.

Veraverbeke says the extreme fire in eastern Siberia is concerning because it is illuminating carbon-rich soils and could accelerate the degradation of permafrost — normally frozen ground all year round — leading to the release of additional greenhouse gases.

“If these trends continue, it suggests that we will see even more fires in eastern Siberia,” adds Veraverbeke.

A burned forest in the far east of Russia. Climate change makes extreme wildfires more likely to occur in this region.DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

Why these studies are important — Both reports highlight a concerning dynamic unfolding in the Arctic that will have important implications for the rest of the world.

Global warming is intensifying certain conditions — bringing warmer temperatures, more snowmelt, drier vegetation — that can fuel extreme forest fire seasons. Researchers say climate change likely explains the growth of extreme fire seasons by making plants more susceptible to wildfires and increasing lightning which can start fires.

“This increase in annual burned area suggests that the Arctic is already experiencing a shift in fire regimes caused by global warming,” the researchers write in the first study.

These new reports Science add to the growing body of evidence showing that such rapid changes in temperature can lead to wildfires capable of quickly devastating arctic landscape. Earlier this year, a study found that the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet.

In turn, these wildfires cut through the peat, releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere and accelerating global warming. It’s what scientists call a ‘feedback loop’ – and we will be trapped in this loop if we don’t take action to curb climate change.

“I think it’s important to realize that climate change is not just a fixed increase in temperature. Extreme events, such as heat waves and fires, could have disproportionate impacts on ecosystems and society,” says Veraverbeke.

And after – The kind of extreme fires we saw in 2020 will likely occur on an annual basis by the end of the century under a high global warming scenario (a temperature increase of 3.7 degrees Celsius), according to the first study.

But if we cut carbon emissions and lower global warming to a more modest 1.8 degrees Celsius, in line with the benchmark’s targets Paris Climate Agreement – then large fires would likely become less frequent by 2100.

“Therefore, reducing anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions is crucial to reducing the likelihood of extreme Arctic fire seasons at the end of the century,” Descals said.

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