Climate Change

Zombie fires in a warming Arctic region a worry: Study

Arctic fires are also burning earlier and farther north, in landscapes previously thought to be fire resistant

By DTE Staff
Published: Wednesday 30 September 2020
A satellite image showing a fire burning 100 kilometres west of Yakutsk, Siberia September 26, 2020. Photo: antonio vecoli @tonyveco / Twitter__

The fire regimes in the Arctic are changing rapidly, with ‘zombie fires’ becoming more frequent in addition to fires occurring in the once-frozen tundra, according to a new study.

A ‘zombie fire’ is a fire from a previous growing season that can smoulder under the ground which is made up of carbon-rich peat. When the weather warms, the fire can reignite, according to the study by scientists from the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in the United States.

The second, even more worrying feature, is of fires in the Arctic spreading to areas which were formerly fire-resistant. The tundra — north of the Arctic Circle — is drying up and vegetation there like moss, grass, dwarf shrubs, etc are starting to catch fire, according to the study published in Nature Geoscience.

Wildfires on permafrost in Siberia south of the Arctic are not uncommon. But the team found that in 2019 and 2020, burning occurred well above the Arctic Circle, a region not normally known to support large wildfires.

Down To Earth had also reported on how temperatures in Siberia this year had gone through the roof, with the region recording a severe heatwave.

Nearly all of this year’s fires inside the Arctic Circle occurred on continuous permafrost, with over half of these burning on ancient carbon-rich peat soils, a statement by the university said.

The fires and record temperatures had the potential of turning the carbon sink into a carbon source and increasing global warming, the experts noted. The team tracked fire activity in the Russian Arctic in real time, using a variety of satellite and remote sensing tools.

There was an urgent need to understand the nature of fires in the Arctic which are evolving and changing rapidly, the study said. In fact, the issue was so important to the climate system that it had to be taken up as an issue of global importance, the study added.

The study urged global cooperation, investment and action in monitoring fires. It called for learning from the indigenous peoples of the Arctic about how fire was traditional used.

It said that new permafrost- and peat-sensitive approaches to wildland fire fighting were needed to save the Arctic. 

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