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The Arctic Is on Fire and Warming Twice as Fast as the Rest of the Earth

Climate
The Arctic Is on Fire and Warming Twice as Fast as the Rest of the Earth
A forest fire in Yakutsk in eastern Siberia on June 2, 2020. Yevgeny Sofroneyev / TASS via Getty Images

Once thought too frozen to burn, Siberia is now on fire and spewing carbon after enduring its warmest June ever, according to CNN.


The most immediate impacts of the climate crisis are in the nether-regions world of the world where temperatures are extreme and inhospitable. One of the most alarming examples is playing out in Siberia, which just saw temperatures reach triple digits as it endured its warmest month ever. That June heatwave in Siberia has led to some staggering numbers, according to scientists, as CNN reported.

The wildfires in Siberia started much earlier in the spring than ever before, according to The Washington Post. Permafrost is thawing, infrastructure is crumbling, and sea ice is dramatically vanishing.

"We always expected the Arctic to change faster than the rest of the globe," said Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, to The Washington Post. "But I don't think anyone expected the changes to happen as fast as we are seeing them happen."

The wildfires released an estimated 59 megatonnes of carbon dioxide across Siberia in June, according to scientists at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS). This spate of fires on landscapes that are typically too cold, wet, and icy to burn is raising alarms for ecologists and climate scientists, according to National Geographic. They fear the rash of blazes is another sign that the Arctic is undergoing rapid changes that could set off a series of consequences on a global scale.

The fires can be a double whammy for the Siberian ecosystem. If they become a regular occurrence, it could cause new species to colonize the area, which would set the stage for more fires. Also, the increased intensity and duration of the fires may accelerate the climate crisis by thawing the ground and releasing trapped carbon that has accumulated in frozen organic matter, as National Geographic reported.

"By how big they are and how hot they are, I would say there's no way they're not burning down," said Amber Soja, an associate research fellow with the National Institute of Aerospace and an expert on Siberian wildfires, to National Geographic.

Already, the area's carbon dioxide emissions for June were its highest in the 18 years of the CAMS dataset, surpassing the record of 53 megatonnes set just one year ago in June 2019.

"Higher temperatures and drier surface conditions are providing ideal conditions for these fires to burn and to persist for so long over such a large area," said CAMS senior scientist Mark Parrington, as CNN reported.

"We have seen very similar patterns in the fire activity and soil moisture anomalies across the region in our fire monitoring activities over the last few years."

Siberia also had a warmer than average winter. CAMS said that the warm winter meant that "zombie" blazes were able to smolder through the winter and may have reignited this spring, according to Phys.org.

Globally, June 2020 was more than half a degree Celsius warmer than the 1981-2010 average for the same month, and on a par with June 2019 as the warmest ever registered. Siberia, which is larger than the U.S. and Mexico combined, was more than 5 degrees Celsius above normal for June, according to Copernicus Climate Change Services satellite data, as Phys.org reported.

Some parts of Siberia had an average temperature that was 10 degrees Celsius, or 18 degrees Fahrenheit, warmer than average. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet through a process known as Arctic amplification, as CNN reported. Arctic ice melt has accelerated, which leads to seasonal snow cover that isn't as white and absorbs more sunlight, which leads to more warming, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"To me what's really shocking is how warm it's been relative to average for so many weeks and months," said Zack Labe, a climate scientist at Colorado State University, as National Geographic reported.

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Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

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The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

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