Arctic Fires Cause Global Warming

A study has found fires in the Arctic are on the rise, which could accelerate global warming.

Research published in the journal Nature shows that as global temperatures rise, the Arctic will not be spared, and fires like these may become more common and more severe.

The organic-rich soil of the Arctic – the fastest warming region on the planet – is highly flammable but also has the capacity to store large amounts of carbon.

The study reveals how a single fire can rapidly change the carbon balance of the region and instead of storing emissions, it can emit large amounts into the atmosphere.

“If the Arctic continues to warm, you know the landscape around me is covered with organic soil that… historically in places like Britain people burn that as a fuel source. It’s highly flammable,” said Michelle Mack, one of the scientists behind the study.

“So if the climate continues to warm and there are periods when the Arctic is dry then I think we’re going to see more fires and there’s plenty of fuel to fuel fires.”

It is hard to imagine a region normally blasted by freezing temperatures can also be home to fires.

But in 2007, a raging wildfire burned more than 1,000 square kilometres of tundra, the area of vast treeless lowland on Alaska’s North Arctic Slopes.

‘Wake-up call’
And it took most by surprise. Associate Professor Mack and a team of scientists from the University of Florida have been studying the event and its impact on this fragile part of the planet.

“There’s really little fire in this landscape and there’s no evidence of fire in the last 7,000 years so it was really a unique event and then by any standards it was a huge fire,” she said.

“And so the 2007 fire here in the Arctic tundra was sort of a wake-up call, like this is something that could be really important to this ecosystem.”

The scientists say Arctic fires could be a problem not only for the region but for the planet.

Dr Melita Keywood, from the CSIRO’s atmospheric and marine research unit, says Arctic forests are quite different to other forests.

“The thing about forests is that they do grow back so they’re able to capture some of the carbon back when they grow. But the thing about the Arctic forests is that they are very slow growing forests so it will take longer for them to do that,” she said.

“So therefore they (the Arctic wildfires) have a significant impact on the climate.”

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