Arctic Wildfires Have Never Released This Much Carbon Dioxide

A satellite view of several wildfires burning above the Arctic Circle in the Sakha Republic, Russia.
A satellite view of several wildfires burning above the Arctic Circle in the Sakha Republic, Russia.
Image: Pierre Markuse/Flickr

Sure, we’re all aghast at the Siberian tundra exploding because it’s too damn hot. But there’s a much bigger catastrophe that’s played out this summer in the overheated region. Arctic fires have unleashed an unprecedented amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

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This comes from the European Commission’s Copernicus program, which monitors fires around the world using satellites. Its data shows that this year set a record, breaking one set last year.

The emissions from fires above the Arctic Circle totaled 244 megatonnes of carbon dioxide, the highest since satellite records began in 2003. In eastern Russia—which include parts of Siberia below the Arctic Circle—carbon dioxide emissions reached a record 540 megatonnes this summer while the western part of the country saw emissions reach 395 megatonnes as fires raged largely uncontrolled, “decimating millions of acres of land,” according to the Copernicus press release.

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Here is where I am supposed to provide comparisons for you to make sense of these numbers. The Arctic fires are equivalent to Spain’s emissions. Eastern Russia? All aviation emissions in pre-pandemic times. Western Russia? Basically a shade above what the UK spews in a year. Feel free to use these comparisons on your next Zoom happy hour.

But really the data and points of reference only tell part of the story. There’s a whole other side, namely that this is a crisis for all of humanity. This marks the second year in a row of major, shocking wildfire damage in the Arctic and areas just south. And it fits with a trend of increasingly odd fire behavior in a region more known for ice, with flames even licking the frozen landscape of Greenland in recent years.

Rising heat has contributed to the fire danger, with this year particularly notable for sweltering, record-breaking heat across Russia. This year’s relentless heat was made 600 times more likely by climate change. And in a dark twist, the resulting fires are making climate change worse by pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. There are already signs that other parts of the Arctic known for storing carbon safely underground are turning into net emitters. Adding Arctic forests to the mix could make matters even more dire, speeding up heating that causes more fires and so on.

These concerns are hardly limited to the Arctic. The same pattern of forests sending the carbon they stored back into the atmosphere in a fiery burst played out earlier this year in Australia. There, catastrophic bushfires released half as much carbon dioxide as the country does in a year. Oh, and then there’s California in 2018 where a similar scenario played out, one this year’s dire wildfire season could well replicate. Don’t even get me started on the growing threat of human-ignited fires in the Amazon.

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The thing made clear by all these comparisons is that human activities have pushed forests around the world to the brink. And they could eventually pull us over the edge with them.

Managing editor, Earther

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In the spirit of why we need to support science through the administrative state, NASA Earth Observatory has a cool quicktime movie of wildfires the world over from March 2000 through July 2020 - to get a baseline (or rising baseline) of natural (or not so natural) fire activity.

Kinja doesn’t like quicktime movies so here’s the webpage:

https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/global-maps/MOD14A1_M_FIRE

and a screenshot

Explaining stuff from the webpage:

The fire maps show the locations of actively burning fires around the world on a monthly basis, based on observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. The colors are based on a count of the number (not size) of fires observed within a 1,000-square-kilometer area. White pixels show the high end of the count — as many as 30 fires in a 1,000-square-kilometer area per day. Orange pixels show as many as 10 fires, while red areas show as few as 1 fire per day.