In early May, just as the spring thaw was beginning in the northern reaches of Siberia, Mark Parrington spotted something strange on images captured by instruments aboard NASA’s Terra satellite.
Lots of red dots stood out, indicating some kind of thermal anomaly on a vast white expanse. Thomas Smith, an assistant professor in environmental geography at the London School of Economics, quickly noticed that the hot spots were located in areas that had burned in last year’s epic Arctic fires.
This is from that cluster at 67°N, it’s a real fire, for sure! pic.twitter.com/Gv999h1lLD
— Dr Thomas Smith 🔥🌏 (@DrTELS) May 6, 2020
“Whatever they are (land clearance? natural?) they were occurring at the same time last year,” Smith wrote, posting a picture of the same location from 2019. “Zombie fires?” Parrington replied.
And thus was born a new “catchier” name for what is usually called “holdover or overwintering fires” by fire managers. The name is synonymous with the real danger these fires are causing, though. Once the fires are extinguished at the surface, they can continue to smolder underground, burning through peat and other organic matter.
Fueled by methane and insulated by the snow – they can burn all winter long. As temperatures begin to climb in the spring and the soil dries out, the fires can reignite aboveground.
Monitoring the Arctic Circle
This has been the worst year on record for Arctic wildfires, dating back to when monitoring began 17 years ago. In the first half of July, as much carbon was released as a nation the size of Cuba or Tunisia releases in a year. The smoke plumes were so large, they covered the equivalent of more than one-third of Canada.
The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), implemented by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) on behalf of the European Union, has been tracking the emissions and activity of more than 100 wildfires occurring across the Arctic Circle in the Sakha Republic of Siberia and Alaska for a number of months.
Besides Siberia and Alaska’s wildfires, another wildfire in Northern Alberta, Canada was impressive in its size and intensity. The Chuckegg Creek Fire in northern Alberta burned more than 1,351 square miles (350,134 hectares) and took three months to contain, according to Global News Canada.
ZOMBIE FIRES: Wildfires in the Arctic Circle this summer once again broke records, surpassing last year’s carbon dioxide emissions.
Officials said the smoke plumes were so large, they covered the equivalent of more than one-third of Canada. https://t.co/uqeYWka6sq
— CBS Evening News (@CBSEveningNews) September 3, 2020
“Obviously it’s concerning,” Copernicus senior scientist Mark Parrington told the BBC, according to Live Science. “We really hadn’t expected to see these levels of wildfires yet.”
“The destruction of peat by fire is troubling for so many reasons,” Dorothy Peteet, a a senior research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, said. “As the fires burn off the top layers of peat, the permafrost depth may deepen, further oxidizing the underlying peat.”
Copernicus estimates that between January and August of 2020, the fires released 244 megatonnes of carbon. That is more carbon than was released in Vietnam for the whole year in 2017.
Parrington says, “We know that temperatures in the Arctic have been increasing at a faster rate than the global average, and warmer/drier conditions will provide the right conditions for fires to grow when they have started. Data from our Global Fire Assimilation System shows that typically fires in the Arctic Circle occur in July and August, so it has been unusual to see fires of this scale and duration in June.”
“Our monitoring is important in raising awareness of the wider scale impacts of wildfires and smoke emissions which can help organisations, businesses and individuals plan ahead against the effects of air pollution.”