Fire and Ice: The Arctic’s Zombie Fires

by L.A. White

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. — Robert Frost

2020 has already thrown a series of challenges at humanity— from January’s world war scare to the recent surge of social justice movements to an ongoing pandemic, we’ve been through a lot. Now climatologists are warning us of a new, unique threat:

The Arctic is on fire— more so than usual.

Polar Opposites

You might be wondering, How can the Arctic be on fire? It’s all snow and ice, right?

Not exactly.

The Arctic is known for its icy environment, but the top of the world consists of more than just frozen features. The tundra is the Arctic’s key ecosystem— land with underlying permafrost, or soil that’s been frozen solid. Trees can’t take root in permafrost, creating a ‘treeline’ where the frozen ground ends. The forested portion of the Arctic, known as the taiga, includes the northernmost parts of Canada, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and most notably, Russia.

Despite long, cold winters, the Siberian Arctic has become a hotspot for a new surge of wildfires. While fire is a normal and even necessary part of forest growth, too much of a good thing isn’t always best. 

That’s where zombies come in.

World War Z?

Nope, it’s not the undead rising from their graves to start the apocalypse.

The idea is correct, though. Zombie fires, also known as “holdover fires”, linger below the snow during the winters, slowly burning the layer of peat underneath. When the warmth of summer arrives and the snowpack above thaws, the smoldering embers reignite— rising back into flames like, well, a zombie.

“Under certain environmental conditions, we may see a cumulative effect of last year’s fire season in the Arctic which will feed into the upcoming season and could lead to large-scale and long-term fires across the same region once again,” explains Mark Parrington, senior scientist and wildfire expert at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS).

This means that ‘zombie fires’ could be the start of a longer, widespread series of wildfires in the Arctic.

So how do Arctic wildfires affect the rest of Earth?

All Fired Up

It’s common knowledge that methane and carbon dioxide are greenhouse gases— they trap heat and contribute to global warming. And because fire is a form of combustion, it can produce these notorious gases.

According to Sander Veraverbeke, an assistant professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, seventy to ninety percent of the carbon released during wildfires comes from organic soil. However, while wildfires may be natural sources of carbon emissions, they are only a precursor to the actual problem. 

As the increasing number of wildfires heats the Arctic, the permafrost begins to thaw as well. The permafrost is estimated to contain 1,400 gigatons of frozen carbon— a bit under two times the 850 gigatons of carbon in Earth’s atmosphere. This means that as the glacial ground begins to soften, it has the potential to release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and accelerate the already rapid warming of our planet.

What’s the Point?

This facet of global warming is a vicious cycle— the more that the permafrost thaws and releases carbon, the warmer the atmosphere becomes, causing more thawing— and on and on.

While zombie fires may not signal an immediate apocalypse, they are definitely a warning sign on the road leading to climate change.

TREMG news

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