Unprecedented fires burn the Arctic

Mark Kaufman

Smoke is rising over the forests of Alaska and Siberia.

The World Meteorological Organization called the wildfires now burning around the Arctic "unprecedented." The United Nations agency noted that over 100 intense fires burned in the Arctic Circle alone over the past six weeks, releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than Sweden does in an entire year. 

A rare fire even ignited in Greenland, amid unusually hot and dry weather.

Amplified wildfires are an expected, predictable consequence of a warming climate. This is all the more true in the Arctic, a sprawling region that is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the globe. The profound changes here can be easily observed over the Arctic ocean, too, where sea ice has broken records for melting throughout the 2019 summer.

Over the course of 10 days in July, Alaskan wildfires burned an area of land the size of Rhode Island. This is way above normal — though this doesn't match Alaska's extreme burning of 2015. 

The largely Arctic state, however, just had its warmest 12-month period on record.

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Just across the Bering Sea, in Siberia, NASA satellite images from July 13 show dense smoke swirling over eastern Russia, with red spots designating wildfires.

Fires in Siberia on July 13, 2019.

Image: nasa worldview

While a warming climate itself doesn't create weather events or fires, it amplifies these events and significantly boosts the odds of such events occurring. That's why leading climate scientists emphasize looking at the bigger picture — and following trends.

And the trends are clear. On Earth, 18 of the 19 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001. Warmer climes mean an atmosphere that holds more water, which translates to a boost in pummeling deluges — like the type that flooded Washington, D.C. earlier this week. The U.S. just experienced its wettest 12 months in 124 years of recorded history. 

Such warming also means momentous declines in Arctic sea ice, amplified, growing drought in arid swathes of the United States, and fires that are burning for weeks longer than they were in the 1980s

The future may have its many unknowns. But it's almost certain that the Arctic will be a smokier place as the region continues a relentless, accelerating warming trend. 

This July, Anchorage hit 90 degrees Fahrenheit. That's the hottest day ever recorded in the city's history. 

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