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Extreme Arctic Temperatures, Siberian Wildfires Driving Up CO2 Emissions

Max Pixel

Last week’s 30°C temperatures in the Arctic Circle have observers fearing a repeat of 2019’s devastating summer of apocalyptic wildfires. 

Citing the BBC weather service, iNews reports [1] the temperature in Nizhnyaya Pesha, a district on the northwest fringes of Russia, soared to a record 30°C last Tuesday afternoon, adding that temperatures in the region “do not usually climb above 30°C until July or August, if at all.”

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Such an extreme spike in June is another sign that change in the Arctic environment is happening quickly, said Gareth Marshall, senior climatologist for the British Antarctic Survey. He warned that such heat bodes ill not just for the Arctic alone: increasing wildfires in the region will further drive up atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gases across the globe.

And this year’s fires are already making headlines [3]: “Siberian fires have gotten off to a fast, and unusually expansive, start,” writes the Washington Post, adding that temperatures in the region are close to 40°C above average. “Russian officials have stated they expect the summer will potentially be the hottest the region has seen, with an unusually destructive fire season.” 

Some of the fires burning in the Arctic may not even be new. “Some scientists are noting how quickly the hotspots are showing up on satellite imagery and questioning whether these are actually ‘zombie fires’ from last summer that survived the winter by burning in layers of vegetation under the snow,” notes the Post. 

Fires in general are not uncommon in the Arctic—in fact, notes [4] The Independent, they actually play a critical role in the seeding and growth of trees in the region, which then eventually re-sequester the carbon released during a burn. But, warned Thomas Smith, an assistant professor in environmental geography at the London School of Economics, “an increasing frequency and severity of fires might lead to permanent changes in these ecosystems, where we could see the replacement of forests with shrubs or grasses.”

High Arctic temperatures will also lead to the degradation of carbon sinks, as “wetlands, forests, and soil… break down and release emissions, further accelerating climate change,” said Marshall.

“These carbon sinks can only exist within a very narrow temperature range,” he told iNews. “So they are especially vulnerable to warming events like what we are seeing at the moment, and they will have a huge impact on future emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere.”

The Independent writes that, “if the fires have ignited peat soils, the carbon lost from these fires has taken thousands of years to accumulate, something that cannot be reversed within time scales of concern for climate change.” Peatlands in the northern hemisphere store “massive amounts” of carbon, and, if they burn, the released CO2 “would immediately render all efforts to control emissions futile.”

Bloomberg Green notes [5] that the unusually warm spring has come on the heels of the hottest winter on record. Because “wildfires and hotter temperatures kickstart sea ice melt sooner,” Bloomberg adds, tanker traffic was able to flow a month earlier than usual across the Northern Sea Route—“the shortest and cheapest way for cargos of liquefied natural gas produced in the Russian Arctic to reach Asia.”