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Global Warming Fuels More Frequent Wildfires In The Arctic—Which Leads To More Global Warming, Study Finds – Forbes

Topline

Rising global temperatures have sparked more frequent wildfires in the Arctic in recent years, according to a new study published in Science, a trend that is expected to worsen as earth’s temperature continues to rise, and which could also contribute to a spike in carbon emissions.

Key Facts

Wildfires burnt some 4.7 million hectares of land in 2019 and 2020, according to the researchers, who analyzed satellite observations of the location during that time period.

In 2020 alone, there were 423 fires in the Siberian Arctic, burning roughly three million hectares of land—an area nearly as big as Belgium—which resulted in the emission of 265 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, levels on par with Spain’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, according to Adrià Descals, a study author with the Spanish Council for Scientific Research.

The fires in 2019 and 2020 accounted for nearly half (44%) of total burns to the area in the Siberian Arctic from 1982 to 2020, showing the sharp acceleration of wildfires in recent years. Wildfires in the Arctic increase carbon emissions by damaging the Arctic’s large swaths of permafrost, a permanently frozen thick layer of soil that harbors large amounts of carbon.

The rise in wildfires are linked with rising temperatures over the past four decades that have caused drier weather conditions, longer summers and more vegetation, which reduces the availability of water in the soil, the researchers found.

The extreme fire seasons of 2019 and 2020 “could be exceptional events,” but “recent temperature trends and projected scenarios indicate that, by the end of the century, large fires such as those in 2019 and 2020 will be frequent if temperatures continue to increase at the current rate,” the researchers wrote in the study.

Tangent

In a separate paper about the study also published in Science Thursday, two other researchers noted the increase in wildfires is creating a “feedback loop,” that is leading to more global warming. , Accelerated Arctic warming dries peatland soils, or the layer of soil containing decomposed plant matter, which in turn contributes to more frequent wildfires in the Arctic, according to Eric Post, with the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology at the University of California, Davis, and Michelle Mack, with the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. This causes the release of more carbon dioxide in the form of greenhouse gas emissions, which further contributes to global warming, the experts wrote in a separate paper about the study also published in Science Thursday.

Surprising Fact

In 2020—which included the warmest summer on record in the past four decades—there were seven times as many fires in the Siberian Arctic than the average amount from 1982 to 2020, the study found. The fires damaged an “unprecedented area of peatlands,” according to the authors.

Big Number

Nearly 1,700 billion metric tons. That’s how much carbon the Arctic’s permafrost stores.

Key Background

The Arctic has been warming quickly as climate change escalates, with annual mean temperatures rising by more than two degrees celsius since the late 19th century. Temperatures are expected to hit anywhere from 3.3 degrees to 10 degrees celsius above the 1985 to 2014 average by 2100, according to the researchers. An August study also found the Arctic has warmed almost four times faster than the rest of the world over the past 43 years. Wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystem in the Arctic, but rising temperatures are increasing their size, frequency and intensity. Previous research has suggested the amount of burned area in the Alaskan tundra might double the amount in the 1950-2010 period by the end of the century. Scientists have warned that extreme weather events will become more frequent with rising temperatures, and have said drastic actions must be taken to curb emissions and limit temperature increases. The U.S. and other countries around the world in the summer of 2022 experienced a series of extreme weather events, including record-breaking heat waves, floods, droughts and wildfires.

Further Reading

Why Arctic fires are releasing more carbon than ever (Reuters)

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