Arctic wildfires: What’s caused huge swathes of flames to spread?

A fire spreading through the forests of Siberia Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Arctic fires are common but the intensity of these makes them unusual

Wildfires are ravaging the Arctic “at unprecedented levels”, a senior scientist has warned.

Large areas of Siberia, northern Scandinavia, Alaska and Greenland are in flames.

The wildfires are believed to have been triggered by lightning and summer temperatures that are higher than average due to climate change.

Plumes of smoke from the fires, which are releasing significant amounts of carbon dioxide, can be seen from space.

Mark Parrington, a senior scientist and wildfires expert at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) posted his concerns about the emissions on Twitter.

What caused the fires?

Global warming is a major contributor. The planet saw the hottest June on record and it is predicted that July will follow the same pattern.

Extremely dry ground and hotter than average temperatures, combined with heat lightning and strong winds, have caused the fires to spread aggressively.

The burning has been sustained by the forest ground, which consists of exposed, thawed, dried peat – a substance with high carbon content.

Where are the fires?

There are more than 100 fires covering mostly uninhabited regions across eastern Russia, northern Scandinavia, Greenland and Alaska.

Image copyright Pierre Markuse / Sentinel 2 / Copernicus EU
Image caption Satellite images show the extent of the burning in eastern Russia

But smoke is affecting wider surrounding areas, engulfing some places completely. Cities in eastern Russia have noted a significant decrease in air quality since the fires started.

There have been reports that the smoke has reached Russia’s Tyumen region in western Siberia, six time zones away from the fires on the east coast.

How bad is it?

A big environmental concern is that the fires themselves are releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing further to the global warming that helped cause them in the first place.

In June, the fires released an estimated 50 megatonnes of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of Sweden’s annual carbon output, according to CAMS.

This creates a vicious cycle of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases driving more warming. Many of the toxins released from the fires will eventually settle on ice surfaces further north, encouraging further melting.

How unusual is it?

Arctic fires are common between May and October and wildfires are a natural part of an ecosystem, offering some benefits for the environment, according to the Alaska Centers website.

But the intensity of these fires, as well as the large area they have taken up, make them unusual.

Image copyright Pierre Markuse / Sentinel 2 / Copernicus EU
Image caption Maps show smoke spreading from Alaska into Canada and the USA

“It is unusual to see fires of this scale and duration at such high latitudes in June,” said Mr Parrington. “But temperatures in the Arctic have been increasing at a much faster rate than the global average, and warmer conditions encourage fires to grow and persist once they have been ignited.”

What is being doing to tackle the fires?

Russian authorities are not tackling the majority of the fires as they argue the cost of fighting them would be bigger than the damage caused by the flames.

“Most of these fires are not being put out because they do not threaten any settlements or the economy,” the press service of the Krasnoyarsk Region forestry ministry told a Siberian news website.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The fires are extremely difficult for authorities to put out

They said the expected cost of battling the flames would be “several times, sometimes tens of times, greater than possible damage”.

Alaska Centers agree that “fire-suppression efforts sometimes are more damaging than the wildfire”.

What’s the response been?

The hashtags #putouttheSiberianfires and #saveSiberianforests are currently trending on Twitter as Russians complain the government is not doing enough to tackle the crisis.

Some argue that the Notre Dame fire in Paris received far more media attention than the forest fires.

“Remember how far the news about the Notre Dame fire spread? Now is the time to do the same about the Siberian forest fires,” said one tweet.

Another said: “Let’s not forget that nature is no less important than history. Numerous animals have lost their homes, and many of them are probably dead. Just thinking about this is painful.”

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Media captionWildfires caused devastation in Greece last year


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