A year ago in June and July wildfires in the Arctic had released as much carbon as Belgium does in an entire year — an unprecedented summertime burn that would amplify the region’s climate change–fueled fever. But everything, apparently, is worse in 2020, including the climate toll of this year’s Arctic fires, which makes 2019 seem like a warm-up.
Data released by the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) shows that in June and July, Arctic fires released 204 megatons of carbon dioxide, far exceeding last year’s 140 megatons and eclipsing the annual emissions of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland combined. With unusually high temperatures continuing to bake the Arctic, the flames show no immediate signs of dying down. Combined with the fact that some of this year’s fires appear to be burning into carbon-rich peat soils, the ultimate climate impact of this year’s fire season could be much greater than what scientists are currently estimating.
While last year’s Arctic fires spanned both Alaska and Siberia, this year, Siberia is the definitive star of the show. Following months of warm weather, fires began flaring up in northern Siberia around the start of May. The blazes escalated significantly in mid-June as a brutal heat wave descended on Russia’s northeastern Sakha Republic, causing the town of Verkhoyansk to sweat through the Arctic’s first-ever 100-degree F day. By the end of the month, Arctic fires had pumped 59 megatons of carbon dioxide into the air, eclipsing the 53 megatons emitted in June 2019 and setting a new high-water mark for Arctic fire emissions in records going back to 2003.
Arctic sea ice is already at record low levels for this time of year, largely due to an early season melt-out of ice in the Russian Arctic caused by the same abnormal warmth that has helped fires spread across the region. McCarty describes black carbon as “an additional heating process on top of increased water, surface, and air temperatures.”
Ultimately, the emissions produced by this year’s fires will cause additional atmospheric warming across the planet, but especially in the Arctic, where temperatures are rising at more than twice the average global rate. Accelerated sea ice loss, meanwhile, allows more of the sun’s energy to be absorbed by the oceans as heat, making it harder for the ice to regrow in the fall and winter, resulting in yet more heating up north.
It’s this interconnected web of rapid changes and feedback loops that illustrates why scientists consider the Arctic a portal into the rest of the planet’s future. We’d be wise to try and stop that future from going any further off the rails.