"Zombie" Fires Spark New Arctic CO2 Emissions Record

04/04/2020, fire in Teriberka, Murmansk Oblast, Russia, a village in the Arctic circle. Dmitry Leonov/Shutterstock

Emissions from Arctic wildfires in the first eight months of 2020 have increased by more than one-third compared to emissions for the whole of 2019, according to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS). 

The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) monitors the Arctic's so-called "zombie fires," which smolder through winter in peat under the frozen surface, igniting vegetation again in spring when the ice thaws. A new report reveals that from January to August of this year, the Arctic's wildfires were responsible for 244 megatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere. In the entirety of 2019, CO2 emissions was 181 megatonnes.  

“The Arctic fires burning since middle of June with high activity have already beaten 2019’s record in terms of scale and intensity as reflected in the estimated CO2 emissions," said Mark Parrington, Senior Scientist and wildfire expert at CAMS, in a statement. "We know from climate data provided by our parallel service at ECMWF, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), that warmer and drier conditions have been prevalent again this summer."

The drier conditions produced by the unfolding climate crisis are a devasting combination for these fires. The Arctic's zombie fires are also known as holdover or overwintering fires. Fires might appear extinguished on the surface but continue in the soil were areas rich in fuel allow the fires to keep burning in the frozen winter months.

With warmer and drier summer seasons, these fires burn more easily and for longer leading to a dramatic increase in emissions. Scientists were alarmed to see this year's spike in emissions from last year, which itself was an increase on the year before. “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," Parrington told BBC News.

And if carbon dioxide and the climate crisis weren’t concerning enough, the fires release copious amounts of smoke contributing to an overall decrease in air quality.

The Fire Radiative Power, a measure of heat output from wildfires, in the Arctic Circle between June and August 2020. Credit: Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, ECMWF

The CAMS also monitors wildfires from orbit in many different locations in the Northern Hemisphere. Data from the US to Russia shows what a terrible wildfire season this has been.

This summer the fires in the Eastern Federal District of Russia released 540 megatonnes of CO2, higher than the previous highest record, set in 2003 when this data began to be collected. California has experienced its second- and third-worst fires in the state's history, including one recently revealed as being started by a gender reveal party.

“Our monitoring is vital in understanding how the scale and intensity of these wildfire events have an impact on the atmosphere in terms of air pollution. This is also providing useful information for scientists, policymakers, and relevant bodies around the world,” Parrington concluded.

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