Thanks to climate change, parts of the Arctic are on fire. Scientists are concerned

Morgan Hines
Satellite images are showing that areas of the Arctic have been catching fire. These wildfires, while not uncommon, are concerning scientists.

It's the opposite of hell freezing over: Satellite images are showing areas of the Arctic catching fire.

From eastern Siberia to Greenland to Alaska, wildfires are burning. While it isn't uncommon for these areas to see wildfires, there is cause for concern now, Thomas Smith, an assistant professor in environmental geography at the London School of Economics, told USA TODAY. 

"The magnitude is unprecedented in the 16-year satellite record," said Smith. "The fires appear to be further north than usual, and some appear to have ignited peat soils."

What they're looking for in the satellite images, Smith said, are hot spots across a very large area that can indicate peat fires. Peat fires – unlike regular forest fires, which last only an hour or so before moving on – last for days or months. The longevity of these fires is because peat burns down into the soil.

Pierre Markuse, an image processing expert, produced the images using raw data from different satellite systems including the American Landsat, Aqua and Terra satellites and the European Sentinel satellites from Copernicus.

"Some images are natural color images, pretty much like a normal photograph, others include infrared data to show hot spots and look through smoke," Markuse told USA TODAY.

If what scientists were seeing from the satellite images were just regular bursts of flames, it wouldn't be as concerning.

Peat fires smolder, like a cigarette might, for long periods of time. They ignited at the end of June, Smith said, and it appears that they're still burning.

The reason it's concerning is because of what the peat fires emit: greenhouse gases.

"The fires are burning through long-term carbon stores (peat soil) emitting greenhouse gases, which will further exacerbate greenhouse warming, leading to more fires," Smith said.

Climate change is making wildfires in the Arctic far more likely to occur, Smith said.

Mark Parrington, a senior scientist in the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, agreed.

"We know the Arctic has been warming at about twice the rate of the global average," Parrington told USA TODAY. "What this means is that, following ignition, the environmental conditions have been ideal for the fires to grow and continue."

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The emissions resulting from peat fires, Smith said, are massive.

"These are some of the biggest fires on the planet, with a few appearing to be larger than 100,000 hectares (380 square miles)," Smith said. "The amount of CO2 (carbon dioxide) emitted from Arctic Circle fires in June 2019 is larger than all of the CO2 released from Arctic Circle fires in the same month from 2010 through to 2018 put together."

But assessing the actual damage that the fires and their emissions are causing is difficult, according to Parrington.

While Smith said that the fires are too remote right now for people to worry about health impacts, the smoke from the fires could travel between continents and affect air quality in places far away from the source, according to Parrington.

In terms of stopping the fires, there really isn't much that can be done, Smith said. Some firefighters are responding in Alaska since the fires are are further south, he said, but in the Siberian Arctic, only rain can put out the fires.

Follow Morgan Hines on Twitter: @MorganEmHines.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Arctic fires shown on satellite are concerning scientists