By Mark Kaufman
Some fires won't die.
They survive underground during the winter and then reemerge the following spring, as documented in places like Alaska. They're called "overwintering," "holdover," or "zombie" fires, and they may have now awoken in the Arctic Circle — a fast-warming region that experienced unprecedented fires in 2019. The European Union's Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service is now watching these fires, via satellite.
Zombie fires could be awakening in the Arctic
Zombie fires smolder underground for months, notably in dense peatlands (wetlands composed of ancient, decomposed plants), and then flare-up when it grows warmer and drier. "Zombie" is fitting.
"It really does describe what these fires do," said Thomas Smith, an assistant professor in environmental geography at the London School of Economics. "They recover and they're difficult to kill."
This smoldering can quickly escalate to new blazes. "Zombie fires start burning as soon as the snow melts," said Jessica McCarty, an Arctic fire researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Geography at Miami University.
These overwintering fires are most likely to emerge after big wildfire years with lots of burned land. They often light up on the edge of the previous year's blazes. "It suggests a fire might have survived," said Smith. Then, the fires can ignite dried-out vegetation.
Importantly, it's difficult to say with certainty that the remote, early-season Arctic Circle fires identified by the European Union's Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service are all actually zombie fires. It's possible people lit some or many of the blazes for agricultural purposes, or by accident. "It's really difficult to say for sure," noted Smith.
Are these 'zombie' fires? As the snow melted in Arctic Siberia last week, a number of fires have been detected by s… https://t.co/MBZbBYqA2o— Dr Thomas Smith 🔥🌏 (@Dr Thomas Smith 🔥🌏)1588776389.0
🟠 Siberian #wildfire🔥 within the #Arctic Circle at 68.6°N in the #SakhaRepublic, South of #Chersky, #Russia🇷🇺 26 Ma… https://t.co/dV5qtewcQC— Pierre Markuse (@Pierre Markuse)1590507215.0
If they are truly zombie fires, that means 2019's blazes may ignite robust 2020 fires this summer.
"If this is the case, then under certain environmental conditions, we may see a cumulative effect of last year's fire season in the Arctic, which will feed into the upcoming season and could lead to large-scale and long-term fires across the same region once again," Mark Parrington, a senior scientist and wildfire expert at the European Union's Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, said in a statement.
Overall, fires in the Arctic Circle — which can release colossal amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere — have been normal this year, but they're expected to pick up steam in June. What's more, they'll likely be enhanced by both Russia's hottest winter on record and recent Siberian heat waves, where temperatures reached some 40 degrees Fahrenheit above average.
"We could have quite a lengthy fire season," said Smith. Wildfires feast on dry vegetation, Smith emphasized, and there will likely be ample amounts of parched land this summer.
So What Happens Now?
In the future, fire researchers expect an uptick in zombie fires. That's because the planet is relentlessly warming, particularly in the Arctic, which means more ready-to-burn vegetation. It's already happening. "Arctic fires are becoming more common overall," explained Miami University's McCarty.
And some of these fires will inevitably smolder all winter, under the snow. "With a warmer Arctic, we're more likely to see overwintering fires," noted Smith.
It's challenging to stop zombie fires. They can happen in extremely remote places, without any roads or means of dousing them before they erupt. "We have no way of fighting them," said McCarty. "They're often fairly far-removed. How are we going to put them out?"
It's a question of profound importance in the decades ahead. Preventing human-caused Arctic wildfires will be critical, emphasized McCarty. That's because Arctic fires aren't just burning trees, they're often burning through peatlands, which release bounties of the heat-trapping greenhouse gas methane into the air. When it comes to trapping heat, methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the course of a century.
It's a vicious cycle. The warming Arctic produces more fires. More fires burn more forests and peatlands. This releases more methane and carbon dioxide into the air. This contributes to ever more planetary heating.
"Not stopping these zombie fires means further degrading these Arctic ecosystems," said McCarty. "Further warming leads to more zombie fires. It's not great."
This story originally appeared in Mashable and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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World leaders and businesses are not putting enough money into adapting to dangerous changes in the climate and must "urgently step up action," according to a report published Thursday by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
Adaptation Has a Long Way to Go<p>The Adaptation Gap Report, now in its 5th year, finds "huge gaps" between what world leaders agreed to do under the 2015 <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/5-years-paris-climate-agreement/a-55901139" target="_blank">Paris Agreement</a> and what they need to do to keep their citizens safe from climate change.</p><p>A review by the Global Adaptation Mapping Initiative of almost 1,700 examples of climate adaptation found that a third were in the early stages of implementation — and only 3% had reached the point of reducing risks.</p><p>Disasters like storms and droughts have grown stronger than they should be because people have warmed the planet by burning fossil fuels and chopping down rainforests. The world has heated by more than 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution and is on track to warm by about 3°C by the end of the century.</p><p>If world leaders <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/climate-change-performance-index-how-far-have-we-come/a-55846406" target="_blank">deliver on recent pledges</a> to bring emissions to <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/joe-bidens-climate-pledges-are-they-realistic/a-56173821" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">net-zero</a> by the middle of the century, they could almost limit warming to 2°C. The target of the Paris Agreement, however, is to reach a target well below that — ideally 1.5°C. </p><p>There are two ways, scientists say, to lessen the pain that warming will bring: mitigating climate change by cutting carbon pollution and adapting to the hotter, less stable world it brings.</p>
The Cost of Climate Adaptation<p>About three-quarters of the world's countries have national plans to adapt to climate change, according to the report, but most lack the regulations, incentives and funding to make them work.</p><p>More than a decade ago, rich countries most responsible for climate change pledged to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 in climate finance for poorer countries. UNEP says it is "impossible to answer" whether that goal has been met, while an OECD study published in November found that between 2013 and 2018, the target sum had not once been achieved. Even in 2018, which recorded the highest level of contributions, rich countries were still $20 billion short.</p><p>The yearly adaptation costs for developing countries alone are estimated at $70 billion. This figure is expected to at least double by the end of the decade as temperatures rise, and will hit $280-500 billion by 2050, according to the report.</p><p>But failing to adapt is even more expensive.</p><p>When powerful storms like cyclones Fani and Bulbul struck South Asia, early-warning systems allowed governments to move millions of people out of danger at short notice. Storms of similar strength that have hit East Africa, like <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/zimbabwe-after-cyclone-idai-building-climate-friendly-practices/a-54251885" target="_blank">cyclones Idai</a> and Kenneth, have proved more deadly because fewer people were evacuated before disaster struck.</p><p>The Global Commission on Adaptation estimated in 2019 that a $1.8 trillion investment in early warning systems, buildings, agriculture, mangroves and water resources could reap $7.1 trillion in benefits from economic activity and avoided costs when disasters strike.</p>
Exploring Nature-Based Solutions<p>The report also highlights how restoring nature can protect people from climate change while benefiting local communities and ecology.</p><p><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/climate-fires-risk-climate-change-bushfires-australia-california-extreme-weather-firefighters/a-54817927" target="_blank">Wildfires</a>, for instance, could be made less punishing by restoring grasslands and regularly burning the land in controlled settings. Indigenous communities from Australia to Canada have done this for millennia in a way that encourages plant growth while reducing the risk of uncontrolled wildfires. Reforestation, meanwhile, can stop soil erosion and flooding during heavy rainfall while trapping carbon and protecting wildlife.</p><p>In countries like Brazil and Malaysia, governments could better protect coastal homes from floods and storms by restoring <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/mudflats-mangroves-and-marshes-the-great-coastal-protectors/a-50628747" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mangroves</a> — tangled trees that grow in tropical swamps. As well as anchoring sediments and absorbing the crash of waves, mangroves can store carbon, help fish populations grow and boost local economies through tourism. </p><p>While nature-based solutions are often cheaper than building hard infrastructure, their funding makes up a "tiny fraction" of adaptation finance, the report authors wrote. An analysis of four global climate funds that spent $94 billion on adaptation projects found that just $12 billion went to nature-based solutions and little of this was spent implementing projects on the ground.</p><p>But little is known about their long-term effectiveness. At higher temperatures, the effects of climate change may be so great that they overwhelm natural defenses like mangroves.</p><p>By 2050, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/rising-sea-levels-should-we-let-the-ocean-in-a-50704953/a-50704953" target="_blank">coastal floods</a> that used to hit once a century will strike many cities every year, according to a 2019 report on oceans by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the gold standard on climate science. This could force dense cities on low-lying coasts to build higher sea walls, like in Indonesia and South Korea, or evacuate entire communities from sinking islands, like in Fiji.</p><p>It's not a case of replacing infrastructure, said Matthias Garschagen, a geographer at Ludwig Maximilian University in Germany and IPCC author, who was not involved in the UNEP report. "The case for nature-based solutions is often misinterpreted as a battle... but they're part of a toolkit that we've ignored for too long."</p>
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