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.
- The Arctic Is on Fire and Warming Twice as Fast as the Rest of the Earth - EcoWatch ›
- Arctic Wildfires Are Changing, With Big Implications for the Global Climate - EcoWatch ›
By Jeff Masters, Ph.D.
Earth had its second-warmest year on record in 2020, just 0.02 degrees Celsius (0.04°F) behind the record set in 2016, and 0.98 degrees Celsius (1.76°F) above the 20th-century average, NOAA reported January 14.
Figure 1. Departure of temperature from average for 2020, the second-warmest year the globe has seen since record-keeping began in 1880, according to NOAA. Record-high annual temperatures over land and ocean surfaces were measured across parts of Europe, Asia, southern North America, South America, and across parts of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans. No land or ocean areas were record cold for the year. NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information
Figure 2. Total ocean heat content (OHC) in the top 2000 meters from 1958-2020. Cheng et al., Upper Ocean Temperatures Hit Record High in 2020, Advances in Atmospheric Sciences
Figure 3. Departure of sea surface temperature from average in the benchmark Niño 3.4 region of the eastern tropical Pacific (5°N-5°S, 170°W-120°W). Sea surface temperature were approximately one degree Celsius below average over the past month, characteristic of moderate La Niña conditions. Tropical Tidbits
- NASA and NOAA: Last Decade Was the Hottest on Record - EcoWatch ›
- Earth Just Had Its Hottest September Ever Recorded, NOAA Says ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
In December of 1924, the heads of all the major lightbulb manufacturers across the world met in Geneva to concoct a sinister plan. Their talks outlined limits on how long all of their lightbulbs would last. The idea is that if their bulbs failed quickly customers would have to buy more of their product. In this video, we're going to unpack this idea of purposefully creating inferior products to drive sales, a symptom of late-stage capitalism that has since been coined planned obsolescence. And as we'll see, this obsolescence can have drastic consequences on our wallets, waste streams, and even our climate.
- Consumer Society No Longer Serves Our Needs - EcoWatch ›
- Electronic Waste: New EU Rules Target Throwaway Culture ... ›
At least 42 people are confirmed dead and more than 600 injured after a 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck the Indonesian island of Sulawesi early Friday morning.
- At Least 27 Dead as Landslides Strike Indonesia, Including Village ... ›
- 1,400 Dead, 70,000 Homeless After Earthquake and Tsunami in ... ›
By Jessica Corbett
Water protectors were arrested Thursday after halting construction at a Minnesota worksite for Enbridge's Line 3 project by locking themselves together inside a pipe segment.
- Indigenous-Led Water Protectors Take Direct Action Against ... ›
- Indigenous and Climate Leaders Outraged Over Minnesota Permits ... ›
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed a sweeping climate bill on Thursday that would have put the commonwealth on a path to eliminating carbon emissions by 2050.