550,000 Acres on Fire in Alaska in Latest Sign of the Climate Crisis
Two small communities near Anderson, Alaska were ordered to evacuate late Thursday due to a wildfire, as the state's summer of heat and smoke continues.
The Kobe Fire was reported at 6:45 p.m. Thursday and by 10:50 p.m. had grown to 600 acres, The Alaska Division of Forestry reported. There are no reports that anyone was burned, but multiple buildings were threatened, prompting the evacuation of the Kobe and Anderson subdivisions. The residents of the City of Anderson, around 10 miles northeast of the blaze, were told to be ready to leave at a moment's notice.
The fire is the latest to ignite in Alaska, where 1.2 million acres have burned so far this year, making 2019 one of the state's three biggest wildfire years, according to InsideClimate News. Increasing Arctic wildfires have long been predicted in models of potential impacts of the climate crisis.
"When it comes to the Arctic heat wave, the wildfires, am I surprised? No — this was long predicted. Am I worried? Yes," Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann told InsideClimate News.
Alaska's fires show the footprints of climate change in multiple ways. Higher temperatures are drying out the tundra and northern boreal forests. Alaska has experienced a record-breaking heat wave this spring and summer. The temperatures for the entire state for July 2018 to June 2019 averaged above freezing for the first time in 95 years, according to NOAA data.
For the first time in 95 years of record, @NOAANCEIclimate analysis puts the July-to-June average temperature for A… https://t.co/JqSg0PJE4o— Rick Thoman (@Rick Thoman)1562731261.0
Climate change is also making lightning storms more likely, which were responsible for many of Alaska's fires this year, International Arctic Research Center scientist Brian Brettschneider told InsideClimate News. Lightning sparked 12 new fires in the state on Wednesday alone, according to the Alaska Division of Forestry.
Lightning strikes spark dozen new wildfires in Southwest Alaska on Wednesday https://t.co/J90KSWhEVC https://t.co/Kvq4HdbBZC— AK Forestry (@AK Forestry)1562892173.0
On July 8, Alaska's Hess Creek Fire was reported as the largest burning in the U.S. at 145,321 acres, according to Alaska Wildland Fire Information. The fire has been burning since June 21 in a part of central Alaska 80 miles north of Fairbanks, CNN reported.
"We're all socked in with smoke," firefighter spokesperson Sarah Wheeler told CNN. "It's a smoky mess."
#Alaska's #HessCreekFire is now the nation's largest #wildfire in 2019 - CNN https://t.co/Wr0JMNOkOG— Janice Dash (@Janice Dash)1562702294.0
Currently, more than 550,000 of the 782,681 acres on fire in the U.S. are in Alaska, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center situation report. To put that in perspective, 505,900 acres burned in California in the state's record wildfire year in 2017. However, fires in Alaska tend not to threaten human communities as often. Livengood, where the Hess Creek Fire is burning, only has a population of 13. Wheeler said some cabins were threatened by the flames, but most were not permanent homes.
"Alaskans are used to living with fire," Wheeler told CNN.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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