Climate crisis

Look! The Siberian Arctic is on fire and the impact could be devastating

Arctic fires could set a dangerous feedback loop in motion.

Joshua Stevens/NASA

The Siberian Arctic is one of the coldest places on Earth.

Temperatures regularly drop below 0 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, and historical records show it nearing minus 100 in some isolated spots.

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Because of the frigid weather, large portions of the Arctic are covered in permafrost, a layer of soil that remains frozen year-round.

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In short, it’s not the kind of place most people would associate with rampant wildfires.

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But in 2019 and 2020, an unusually strong fire season sounded alarms among scientists, and new research shows it may not be an anomaly.

Two studies published recently in the journal Science link the recent fires to climate change, meaning they’re likely to become more common unless rising temperatures can be curbed.

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For one study, researchers analyzed satellite data from 1982 to 2020, finding seven times more land was burned in 2020 than the forty-year average preceding it.

Adrià Descals

That was driven largely by earlier snow melts, which led to more plant growth in the area. A heatwave in 2020 then dried the vegetation out, making it perfect wildfire fuel.

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A second study determined the conditions in the Arctic in 2020 were caused partially by a strong wind known as the Arctic front jet. The jet stream offshoot only occasionally hits the area, but has become three times as common in the last 40 years.

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The conditions that unleash extreme fires in the Arctic have been uncommon until now, but both studies point to trouble ahead as global warming makes their occurrence much more likely in coming years.

As if that weren’t bad enough,

the Arctic’s permafrost could make things even worse.

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Because it stays frozen, permafrost locks in a lot of carbon — some estimates say it holds twice as much as there currently is in the atmosphere.

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As permafrost melts, it releases carbon dioxide along with methane, further accelerating the pace of our warming climate.

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Warm weather, dry conditions, and carbon escaping the permafrost form a feedback loop, with each element amplifying the effect of the others.

The finding is grim.

Without intervention to reduce greenhouse gases and slow climate change, the permafrost of the Arctic could disappear at ever-faster rates, leading to more severe weather for all of us.

Joshua Stevens/NASA