In Siberia, a small town north of the Arctic Circle called Verkhoyansk is often one of the coldest places on Earth, frequently dropping below -50 degrees in the winter. On Saturday, a local weather station recorded a temperature of 100.4 Fahrenheit, the highest temperature on record in the Arctic, and 30 degrees higher than the average in the town in June. Nearby, in other parts of the region, more than 680,000 acres of forest are burning.
It could be the beginning of a summer of catastrophic Arctic fires—pumping more carbon into the atmosphere and adding to the problem of climate change that is driving the current heat wave. “Over the past few days, we’re already seeing very unusual fire activity at very high latitude,” says Thomas Smith, an environmental geography professor at the London School of Economics who is studying fires in the region. So far, over the last 18 months, fires in the Arctic Circle have emitted more CO2 than in the previous 16 years added together, he says.
We are in a relentless Arctic #heatwave – Siberia is literally on fire right now and it's set to continue.
Temperatures will comfortably exceed + 30 °C within the Arctic Circle over the next 10 days at least. It is a staggering + 20-25 °C warmer than it should be…
— Scott From Scotland (@ScottDuncanWX) June 19, 2020
The Arctic is warming three times faster than other parts of the world in part because as ice and snow melts, it reflects less sunlight, creating a feedback loop that makes the area hotter and hotter. That’s causing multiple problems. A massive fuel spill this month in Russia, for example, happened because melting permafrost triggered a collapse. Starving polar bears are reportedly resorting to cannibalism as sea ice melts.
The melting permafrost is damaging roads and homes and releasing pathogens like anthrax and bubonic plague. As the Arctic warms, that’s linked to changing weather patterns in other parts of the world, including severe winter storms in places like the United States. And wildfires in places like Siberia are becoming more common—including smoldering fires in the carbon-rich soil that can keep burning for weeks or months, continuing even when it rains.
Occasional fires are normal in the area. Fires might happen in the tundra or forest every 100 years or so, says Smith. The forest would normally regrow, helping take up the carbon emitted by the fire. But as dramatically hotter temperatures and dry weather make fires more likely, that cycle of regrowth may stop happening.
“If these fires become more frequent and more intense, the forested region might never regenerate, because you have fires coming through so frequently that they kill off any young trees that are reestablishing themselves,” he says. “So there’s a worry that there’s a potential here for a shift in the ecosystem from a forested ecosystem to a more like a shrubland. And in that case, all of that carbon that was once stored in the forest is permanently released to the atmosphere and never gets pulled back into the into that we call it the biosphere. That’s of concern for climate change.” The carbon captured in the peatlands in the area has taken thousands of years to accumulate, and once it’s lost, “it will take hundreds if not thousands of years for that carbon to be sequestered again.”