2019 Arctic wildfire season ‘unprecedented’ say experts

A fire burning near Delta Creek, Alaska on June 29, 2019. Alaska has been one of the areas hardest hit by wildfires this season. (Alaska Division of Forestry/Handout/Reuters)
June and July are shaping up to be the most intense Arctic wildfire periods on record with blazes raging everywhere from Siberia and Alaska to even Greenland.

Although fires are a natural part of the boreal forest life cycle, the magnitude and number of the fires this season are unheard of with The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, calling the wildfire spasm “unprecedented” in a news release this month. 

So far, fires have been most severe in Alaska and Siberia, with some fires covering up to 100,000 football fields, says the WMO.

In all, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), implemented by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts on behalf of the European Comission, has tracked more than 100 wildfires within the Arctic Circle this season, with numerous others raging across the North.

“What we’ve been seeing since the 9th or 10th of June is that the daily intensity has been way above what the average value is and that’s really persisted at quite a high level up until the last couple of days to where it started to go back towards those average values,” said Mark Parrington, a senior scientist with the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, in a phone interview on Monday.

What’s causing the blaze uptick?

June 2019 was the warmest June on record, said CAMS in their monthly climate update issued this month, with most of the world’s land and sea regions experiencing higher than average temperatures. While not the only reason for the uptick in wildfire intensity, it is a contributing factor.

“What was clear with those fires in the Siberian Arctic in June was that they were occurring in place where those anomalous temperatures  and anomalous dryness was much more pronounced than anywhere else on the planet,” Parrington said.

“The Arctic climate is changing faster than the rest of the world and the environmental conditions are ideal for fire. So when there’s been an ignition these fires have been able to persist and to grow every rapidly and to endure for several weeks through the summer months.”

Feature Interview
The burn scar, the ecology of the area that’s been burning, and the resulting effects on the carbon cycle could all have climate implications, says Mark Parrington. (Courtesy European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts)

For more on climate, the boreal forest, and what the media keeps getting wrong about wildfires, listen to Eye on the Arctic‘s conversation with Mark Parrington, a senior scientist with the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts:

Canadian wildfire season

Closer to home, Canada has experienced wildfires everywhere from Yukon, in the north-west, to the neighbouring Northwest Territories, as well as the northern region of the western province of Alberta, but has been spared the sustained intense blazes experienced this season in places like Alaska and Russia.

“There are fires but it doesn’t seem to be anything beyond the usual for the Canadian Arctic or Canadian boreal fires,” Parrington said.  “The Chuckegg Creek fire in northern Alberta at the end of May was much more significant and well above the average but in general terms through June and July there’s not been anything particularly unusual.”

Smoke from the Chuckegg Creek wildfire in northwestern Alberta this summer prompted a smoke exposure advisory for residents in communities in the neighbouring Northwest Territories. (Government of Alberta)

Besides obviously landscape changes, the environmental impacts of such extreme fire conditions include everything from air quality to sea ice impacts.

“In June alone, these fires emitted 50 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is equivalent to Sweden’s total annual emissions,” said the World Meteorological Organization. “This is more than was released by Arctic fires in the same month between 2010 and 2018 combined.”

The vast quantities of smoke can have an impact on air quality even far from the site of the fires, Parrington said.

“It’s very unhealthy breathing this smoke and it’s very dense, particularly close to where the fires are burning,” he said.  “But the smoke can also exist in the atmosphere for several weeks and by that it can be transported for thousands of kilometres and can affect air quality a long, long way from where the burning region is.”

Carbon emissions from the 2019 Arctic wildfire season are dwarfing those of previous years. (Courtesy European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts)

Wildfires also contribute to black carbon pollution.

“Particulate matter, black carbon especially in smoke, if it’s deposited to snow or ice than it can accelerate the melting of those white surfaces,” Parrington said.

“Which means it contributes then to global warming because the darker surface absorbs more solar radiation.”

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Large wildfires in Yukon, northwestern Canada threaten highway, CBC News

Finland: Arctic Council experts tackle black carbon risk posed by wildfires, Eye on the Arctic

Iceland: Better wildfire & agriculture management among recommendations from Arctic Council black carbon expert group, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Arctic summer 2019: record heat, dramatic ice loss and raging wildfires, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Study on Swedish wildfires shows how to make forests rise from the ashes, Radio Sweden

United States: Wildfire smoke brings more respiratory complaints in Anchorage, Alaska, Alaska Public Media

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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