Scientists Say Arctic Wildfires Exacerbating Climate Change

Fires are turning Arctic's 'carbon sinks' into major carbon emitters
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 19, 2022 3:13 PM CDT
Arctic Wildfires Releasing More Carbon Than Previously Known
In this photo provided by the Alaska State Troopers, smoke rises from the Munson Creek Fire by Chena Hot Springs Road near Fairbanks, Alaska, Monday, July 5, 2021.   (Alaska State Troopers via AP)

As of late August, wildfires had burned 3 million acres in Alaska. That’s triple the annual average, but it’s "no longer unusual in a warming world," according to a Reuters report that examines how Arctic wildfires may be exacerbating climate change in ways scientists are just beginning to understand. As reported earlier this year, the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet, causing upheaval in boreal forests. Although fire is a natural part of forest ecosystems—even in the Arctic—the frequency and intensity of wildfires have reached unprecedented levels. Scientists attribute the increased risk to heatwaves that have left trees more vulnerable than ever to lightning, which is by far the largest cause of Arctic wildfires.

Most of the planet’s boreal forests are in Siberia, where last year’s fires not only charred 65,000 square miles but also set a "sobering new record" with regard to the Arctic’s share of global carbon emissions from fires. In all, Arctic wildfires released 1.6 million tons of carbon in 2021, roughly equivalent to the CO2 emissions of Peru. That may sound unexceptional until one considers that boreal forests account for just 3% of the area burned each year around the globe, but because of their rich soils—which have acted as vast carbon sinks for thousands of years—they deliver 15% of total carbon emissions from fires.

The scorched landscape also exposes ancient organic materials that until recently were trapped in permafrost but can now begin to thaw, thereby releasing more carbon. These "post-fire permafrost emissions" were never included in climate models, meaning it’s an unforeseen source of atmospheric carbon that’s likely to get worse. And while scientists point out that trees are one of humanity’s best tools for fighting climate change, the rate of tree loss due to fires is now twice what it was 20 years ago, per the Washington Post. And as the Guardian reported last month, boreal forest fires account for some 70% of total global tree loss in recent decades. (Read more wildfires stories.)

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