Climate Change Could Make 'Zombie' Fires Increasingly More Common

Climate Change Could Make 'Zombie' Fires Increasingly More Common
A local activist extinguishes a peat fire in a Suzunsky forest south of the Siberian city of Novosibirsk on Sept. 11, 2020. 'Zombie' fires in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions are becoming more common as global temperatures rise. ALEXANDER NEMENOV / AFP via Getty Images
As if drought, flooding, extreme hurricanes, and deadly heat waves weren't enough, climate change could make "zombie" forest fires more common, scientists say.

Research published Wednesday in Nature found zombie fires — wildfires in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, so-called because they continue to smolder under winter snows and reignite once the snow melts — are becoming more common as global temperatures rise due to humans' extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. Making matters worse, the Arctic is heating faster than the rest of the planet.

The fires and warming fuel a vicious cycle: Higher temperatures enable longer fire seasons and more zombie fires, which lead to the release of more methane and CO2 from carbon-rich peatlands — just 10% of CO2 from Alaskan fires comes from burning trees — which further accelerates global warming.

"Ten years ago, someone asked me, 'How often do these happen?' And I said, 'Ehhh, they're interesting but they don't happen very often,'" Randi Jandt, a fire ecologist with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, told National Geographic. But, she added, "We definitely seem to be seeing them more, in my 30 years of observation and asking people up there about [overwintering fires] before that."

For a deeper dive:

The New York Times, National Geographic, CNN, Axios, The Guardian, Reuters, BBC, VICE, ABC, Wired, Popular Mechanics, E&E

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