One of the coldest places on Earth is burning — and getting worse

A summer day In June 2020, a small town in Russia’s typically frigid Far East set a new world record — and not a good one. The temperature exceeded 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit) for the first time in the region above the Arctic Circle. The World Meteorological Organization said the temperature was “more Mediterranean than Arctic”.

Record-breaking temperatures in Siberia in 2020 hit the world with what scientists knew: The Arctic was warming faster than the rest of the planet, creating devastating consequences such as massive wildfires.

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

Fires will fuel global warming

A figure from the study shows how much of the Siberian Arctic has been burned by fires in recent years compared to the historical average, as well as the carbon stored in peatlands – which is released into the atmosphere when fires break out.Descals et al

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

According to the data, the effects of higher temperatures have increased “significantly” over the past forty years. Warmer temperatures cause early snowmelt, causing more vegetation to grow in the Arctic. These climate conditions provided the abundant fuel necessary to fuel exceptionally long fire seasons in 2019 and 2020, which saw warmer than average temperatures.

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

As a result, the area burned by the fires was seven times higher in 2020 than the average of the previous four decades, destroying an “unprecedented area of ​​peatland” according to the study. Both 2019 and 2020 were the highest burning years in the entire forty-year period, releasing nearly 150 million tons carbon in the atmosphere.

Peatlands contain carbon-rich plant material that normally stays frozen in the Arctic, but rising temperatures can cause them to thaw — or burn, in the case of wildfires — sending huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Global warming is caused by the release of such greenhouse gases as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“Emissions from Arctic wildfires put global climate goals at risk,” researchers warn

Climate change will increase extreme fires in the Arctic

A graphical illustration showing wildfire extremes in 2019, 2020 and 2021 compared to the historical average.Scholten et al

The second study looks more closely at the relationships between climate change and wildfires in the Siberian Arctic. The research finds that earlier snowmelt and an unusual Arctic polar jet contributed to “abnormally warm and dry surface conditions” that fueled extreme wildfires in eastern Siberia between 2019 and 2021.

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

The Arctic jet is a northern branch of the jet stream – a series of air currents in the atmosphere that produce strong winds. According to the paper, both past snowmelt and the unusual Arctic polar jet must coincide for the extreme fire seasons of 2020 to occur.

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

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

A burnt forest in the Far East of Russia. Climate change is making extreme fires more likely to occur in this region.DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

Why these studies matter – Both reports highlight a worrying dynamic in the Arctic that will have major implications for the rest of the world.

Global warming is intensifying certain conditions—bringing warmer temperatures, more snowmelt, drier vegetation—that can fuel extreme wildfire seasons. The researchers say climate change is likely responsible for the growth in extreme fire seasons, making plants more susceptible to wildfires and increasing the amount of lightning that can spark flames.

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

These new references to Science add to the growing body of evidence showing that such rapid temperature changes can lead to wildfires capable of rapidly destroying the arctic landscape. Earlier this year, a study found that the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet.

In turn, these fires burn through the 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 that loop if we don’t take action to curb climate change.

“I think it’s important to realize that climate change is not just about constant temperature increases. Extreme events such as heatwaves and wildfires could have disproportionate impacts on ecosystems and society,” says Veraverbeke.

What’s next – The kind of extreme wildfires seen in 2020 are likely to occur on an annual basis by the end of the century under a high global warming scenario (temperature increase of 3.7 degrees Celsius), according to the first study.

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

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

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