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Peat, the world's largest terrestrial carbon store, ignites into 'unprecedented' Arctic firestorms.

5 min read

Throughout the High Arctic of Canada, Alaska, and Siberia unprecedented wildfires are raging. Thanks to stunning satellite images from NASA and the EU of the burning Arctic, this crisis has made international headlines.

MSNBC discussed these fires yesterday and today I saw CNN, give this nightmare the coverage that it deserves even though it was just a fraction of the coverage given to Donald Trump's daily scandals and repulsive distractions. 

Climate Change News shares the situation unfolding in the Arctic: 

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) – Dry conditions intensified across the state over the past seven days. The U.S. drought monitor released its weekly report and shows an area in the northeast Interior (orange-brown area) that shifted into “severe” drought conditions in the last week. The total area of “severe” drought expanded from 1.1 percent to 4.9 percent. More than 69 percent of the state is experiencing either drought conditions or abnormally dry conditions.

Under the choking black smoke from the bog and forest fires in Siberia and Alaska, it can feel like the Earth itself is burning.  The normally moist, black organic peat soil and lush forests have been drying, and when they catch fire, they burn relentlessly.

Global warming has been thawing tundra and drying vast stretches of the far-northern boreal forests, and it also has spurred more thunderstorms with lightning, which triggered many of the fires burning in Alaska this year, said Brian Brettschneider, a climate scientist with the International Arctic Research Center who closely tracks Alaskan and Arctic extreme weather.

Peat is a carbon-rich soil, fires are of interest in the Arctic because they are quite rare due to cold and moist and waterlogged environments, conditions that should prevent a fire from starting.

But high temperatures and drought, due to emissions from fossil fuels, lower the water table making the bog susceptible to combustion.


The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world and the loss of sea ice helped create this tinderbox. The phenomenon makes the entire Arctic vulnerable to wildfire (usually ignited by lightning). Under these conditions, peat (when ignited) creates slowly moving smoldering fires,  with low-temperature and generally flameless burning of fuel. They release substantial amounts of concentrated smoke leading to the haze that darkens the ice diminishing the reflectivity back to space. This study provides in-depth detail of the emissions.

A peat fire will burn downwards and outward becoming the largest fires on earth in the mass of fuel that is burned.  They continue to burn even in winter and reignite in the summer according to the LSE study.

Besides fine particles, burning peat produces “water vapor and gases including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxides”. All of these gases play a significant role in climate change.


Fascinating thread below.


Brian Kahn of Gizmodo writes:

Intense hot conditions have also fanned flames in Siberia. The remote nature of many of the fires there means they’re burning out of control, often, through swaths of peatland that’s normally frozen or soggy. But as Thomas Smith, a fire expert at London School of Economics, noted on Twitter, there are ample signs the peat dried out due to the heat and is ablaze. That’s worrisome since peat is rich in carbon, and fires can release it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Peat fires can also burn underground into the winter and reignite in spring.

All told, northern fires released as much carbon dioxide in June as the entire country of Sweden does in a year, according to data crunched by the European Union’s Copernicus program. The agency said the wildfire activity is “unprecedented” amidst what was, incidentally, the hottest June ever recorded for the planet with the Arctic particularly sweltering.

All that carbon dioxide released by fires represents one of the scarier feedback loops of climate change as hot weather in the northern hemisphere ensures more fires, which releases carbon dioxide and makes climate change worse. The boreal forest that rings the northern portion of the world is witnessing a period of wildfire activity unseen in at least 10,000 years. It doesn't bode well for our future.

A glimpse into the future when the lack of resources makes government authorities impotent to address climate disasters – abandoning the disaster may be the only course of action available. 


Yessenia Funes writes in Gizmodo that yet another heatwave is set to melt the Arctic this coming week: 

European land surface temperatures Thursday as sensed via satellite. The heatwave will be moving north into the Arctic.
European land surface temperatures Thursday as sensed via satellite. The heatwave will be moving north into the Arctic.

A heatwave has shot up temperatures in Europe to new highs. Now, it’s set to continue moving north to Greenland. And that’s bad news for the ice sheets, the World Meteorological Organization reports.

This dangerous heat—which brought temperatures close to 110 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of France—was caused by warm air entering the atmosphere from the Sahara and Spain. Now, the heat is expected to flow northward.

This heat isn’t just a threat to the people who have to live through it. It’ll likely melt Arctic sea ice. And the Arctic doesn’t need any more heat: It’s warming more than two times faster than the rest of the planet, per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There’s concern the melting could be as bad—or worse—than in 2012 when Arctic sea ice was the lowest in recorded history.

“This will result in high temperatures and consequently enhanced melting of the Greenland ice sheet,” said Clare Nullis, spokeswoman for the World Meteorological Organization at a Friday United Nations briefing, per Reuters.

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