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Arctic on Fire

By Edward Struzik

 On June 19, 2015, a slow-moving low-pressure system with spectacular thunderstorms that produced little rain began making its way through Alaska. By the time the storms finally petered out about a week later, 61,000 bolts of lightning had been unleashed on a boreal forest in the state. No one had ever seen anything quite like it, not even in 2004, when 8,500 lightning strikes were recorded in a single day.

The 2015 storms triggered 270 fires in Alaska. Just over 5 million acres of forest burned and 70 homes were lost. Mercifully, no one died. Though this wave of fires occurred about a month later in the year than the record-breaking season in 2004, everything else followed a similar pattern. Lightning was the trigger for most of the fires, while heat and tinder-dry conditions fueled the flames. Human-driven climate change was likely the reason for the extraordinary heat, the low humidity, and the violent thunderstorms.

Although we cannot assume that climate change is a significant factor in every wildfire scenario, these Arctic fire seasons showed clear indications of such influence. Along with 12 other scientists, Scott Rupp, a wildfire ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and university director of the Interior Department’s Alaska Climate Science Center, spent months poring over data that may theoretically link the wildfires of 2015 to anthropogenic climate change. Remove regional warming from the picture, they concluded, and the forests of Alaska would very likely not have burned as severely as they did.

According to Rupp, if the rains hadn’t come as much as 10 million acres might have burned. That would have made 2015 the largest runaway wildfire season for a state, province, or territory in modern-day North American history. It would have rivaled the Black Dragon fire that burned along the Siberian-Manchurian border in 1988, the biggest fire ever documented.

It’s not just trees that are burning in the Arctic and sub-Arctic world, either. In 2007, the Anaktuvuk fire burned ferociously on the traditionally soggy tundra along the north slope of Alaska. It released 2.3 tons of carbon into the atmosphere and accounted for 40 percent of the area that burned in the state that year. Paleoecologist Phil Higuera said this region hadn’t burned in any significant way in 5,000 years.

As climate continues to play a role in the way fires burn bigger, faster, hotter, and with greater frequency in the north, it is becoming increasingly clear that the conifers of the boreal forest in the sub-Arctic, the sedge meadows, and lichens of the tundra are not responding well to the changes. Variations in hydrology, soil acidity, permafrost thawing, and slumping come when the severe wildfires join forces with warmer, earlier springs; summers; and extended droughts. The frozen landscapes that once favored millions of free-roaming caribou are morphing into shrubbier tundra and aspen-dominated forest favored by moose, bison, and invasive species such as deer.

This is likely to be bad news for indigenous people who see caribou in much the way southerners see cattle. Unable to afford the high cost of beef and other meat products that have to be flown in at great expense, they, as well as non-native people in the north, hunt these animals in large numbers to put food on the table. Some studies suggest that five caribou, enough to provide the protein a family needs to get through a fall and winter, are equal to about $5,000 in grocery bills.

It is also bad news for southerners who are increasingly subjected to noxious Arctic smoke that is being transported to places hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away. No one fully appreciated this until public-health experts at Johns Hopkins university linked smoke from the 2002 sub-Arctic wildfires in northern Quebec to a 50 percent spike in hospitalizations among the elderly living in 81 counties in 11 states along the Eastern Seaboard. The findings are in line with more than 60 epidemiological studies linking wildfire and human health. Those fires in northern Quebec released 470 kilotons of ash and particulate matter into the atmosphere.

Arctic wildfires began to increase in size and severity in the 1990s. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, large wildfires in the northern regions increased in size tenfold compared to those that burned in the 1950s and 1960s. The 2004 and 2005 wildfires burned more area than all that was burned from 1950 to 1964.

According to wildfire data gleaned from various fire agencies and a report by the nonprofit organization Climate Central, nothing in the modern-day record of wildfire in the Arctic compares to what has been happening since the turn of the 21st century. Alaska’s fire season is now 40 percent longer than it was in the 1950s, giving fire an extra month to ignite and burn there and in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions to the east in the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

By almost all scientific accounts, rising temperatures, drier conditions, and an increasing number of lightning strikes will likely lead to even more fires. According to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, the extent of area burning in Alaska is projected to double by 2050 and triple by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not brought under control and runaway Arctic warming continues.

There’s not a great deal that can be done to prevent fires from burning in an area as vast as the Arctic; the firefighting resources just aren’t available. But there are ways for northerners to either adapt to the changes that are coming or mitigate the impacts that wildfire will have on their lives.

The state of Alaska would serve its population well if it stopped encouraging people to move into remote forested landscapes by aggressively selling off land at bargain-basement prices. Humans are responsible for most of the fires that burn. Arctic communities should join FireSmart or Firewise programs, which offer training and other resources that would help small northern towns become more resilient to future fires. One out of three of the hundreds of evacuations that took place Canada in the past 30 years involved native people living in the boreal forest, yet indigenous people comprise less than 4 percent of the country’s population.  

Instead of evacuating people from the path of a fire, as officials typically do, early warning alerts, fire breaks, building codes, and safe havens for people with respiratory problems could be established with minimal cost.

Investment in forest, tundra, and wildfire science would also help policymakers in the future. Knowing where fire is likely to burn and which landscapes are resilient to fire could be useful in developing future land-use plans, while a better understanding of how disease and bark beetles ravage northern forests would also be useful in deciding when and where to initiate prescribed or controlled burns.

With sea ice melting, glaciers thinning, sea levels rising, and Arctic storms picking up steam, it is clear that the Arctic environment we once knew is disappearing. Rampant wildfires will only accelerate this demise. In its place, a new Arctic is unfolding, and with a better understanding of fire and fire management, we have an opportunity to shape the future.

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Edward Struzik is a fellow at Queen’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University Canada. His latest book, Firestorm, How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future (2017), is published by Island Press, Washington D.C.

[Photo courtesy of Fire Systems]

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