Climate Crisis

One of the coldest places on Earth is on fire — and it’s getting worse

It’s a big problem.

On a summer day in June 2020, a small town in the typically frigid 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 ever in the region above the Arctic Circle. The World Meteorological Organization said the temperature was “more befitting the Mediterranean than the Arctic.”

2020’s record-breaking temperatures in Siberia hit home to the world what scientists knew: the Arctic was warming faster than the rest of the planet, creating devastating consequences like massive wildfires.

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

Wildfires will fuel global warming

A figure from the study shows how much of the Siberian Arctic burned from wildfires in recent years compared to the historical average, as well as the carbon stored in peatlands — which gets released into the atmosphere when wildfires occur.Descals et al

The first study analyzes the relationship between wildfires and warming temperatures in the Siberian Arctic based on nearly four decades of satellite data spanning 1982 to 2020.

According to the data, the impacts of higher temperatures have increased “significantly” over the past forty years. Higher temperatures cause snow to melt early, prompting more vegetation growth in the Arctic. These climate conditions provided the abundant fuel necessary to spark extremely large wildfire seasons in 2019 and 2020, which saw temperatures higher than average.

“Heatwaves like the one in 2020 can dry out vegetation, making plants more flammable and prone to wildfires,” Adrià Descals, lead author of the study, tells Inverse. Descals is a researcher at the Spanish National Research Council’s Center for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications.

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

Peatlands contain carbon-rich plant material that typically remains frozen in the Arctic, but warming temperatures can cause them to thaw — or burn, in the case of wildfires — sending tremendous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Global warming is driven by such releases of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“Emissions from Arctic wildfires jeopardize global climate goals,” warn the researchers

Climate change will ramp up extreme wildfire in the Arctic

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

The second study looks more closely 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 warm and dry surface conditions” that generated extreme fire activity in eastern Siberia between 2019 and 2021.

“Both earlier snowmelt and increases in the occurrence of the Arctic front jet are connected to climate change,” Sander Veraverbeke, a co-author on the study and Earth system scientist at VU Amsterdam tells Inverse.

The Arctic polar jet is a northward branch of the jet stream — a series of air currents in the atmosphere producing strong winds. According to the paper, both earlier snowmelt and the unusual Arctic polar jet must coincide for the extreme fire seasons of 2020 to take place.

Veraverbeke says the extreme burning in eastern Siberia is concerning because it lights up carbon-rich soil and could accelerate the degradation of permafrost — ground that is normally frozen year-round — leading to the release of additional greenhouse gases.

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

A scorched 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 matter — Both reports highlight a concerning dynamic playing out in the Arctic that will have significant implications for the rest of the world.

Global warming intensifies certain conditions — bringing hotter temperatures, more snowmelt, drier vegetation — that can fuel extreme wildfire seasons. The researchers say climate change likely accounts for the growth in extreme fire seasons by making plants more susceptible to wildfires and ramping up lightning that can spark blazes.

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

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

In turn, these wildfires blaze through peat, releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere and accelerating global warming. It’s what scientists call a “feedback loop” — and we’ll be trapped in this loop if we don’t take steps to curb climate change.

“I think that it is important to realize that climate change is not only about fixed temperature increases. Extreme events, such as heatwaves and fires, could have disproportional impacts on ecosystems and society,” Veraverbeke says.

What’s next — The sort of extreme blazes we saw in 2020 will likely occur on a yearly basis by the end of the century under a high global warming scenario (a 3.7-degree Celsius temperature increase), according to the first study.

But if we reduce carbon emissions and lower global warming to a more modest 1.8 degrees Celsius — in line with the goals of the landmark Paris climate agreement — then large fires would likely become less frequent by 2100.

“Consequently, reducing human-caused greenhouse gas emissions is crucial to reduce the likelihood of extreme fire seasons in the Arctic at the end of the century,” Descals says.

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