Arctic Heatwave: The Fire This Time

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[Photo by Pixabay]
This week has seen abnormally high temperatures across much of the northern hemisphere, including in Canadathe US, and much of Western Europe, as well as heat records broken in FranceGermany and the Netherlands. Although higher-than-average summer temperatures are starting to become the norm in many parts of the world, what is also causing specific concern this month is the degree to which the Arctic has been affected.

In addition to increased heat levels being recorded closer to the Arctic Circle, many parts of the Arctic are now being affected by dangerous forest fires, up to one hundred separate wildfires according to reports earlier this month, which are pushing up levels of carbon dioxide kicked into the atmosphere. It was estimated that about fifty megatonnes of COfrom Arctic fires were expelled into the air just during the month of June this year, with smoke from these conflagrations visible from space.

These events in the far month are adding to the warnings about the accumulating effects of climate change, and how the Arctic is being specifically distressed. According to the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA), ‘averaged as a whole, the June 2019 global land and ocean temperature departure from average was the highest for June since global records began in 1880 at +0.95°C (+1.71°F).’ The end of July may produce further records, and in the Arctic, signs were appearing that the rate of summer melting of the Arctic ice cap as of mid-July were approaching levels seen in 2012, the year that the lowest September sea ice levels were recorded to date,

Both the European and North American heatwaves, along with those in the Arctic, have been viewed as an even louder warning bell about the phenomenon. Moreover, a report published this month by the journal Nature argued that current warming levels have not been seen in over two millennia and certainly not on the scale as seen today. This would punch a sizeable hole in a theory, often used by deniers, that the current climate situation has been part of a longstanding and natural cooling and warming cycle.

Nevertheless, the government of one major power, and Arctic country, the United States, continues to ignore the mounting evidence of climate change while attempting to play up its ‘positive’ environmental record. At last month’s G-20 meeting in Osaka, the United States once again found itself largely alone in refusing to call for greater international action against carbon emissions and other pollutants contributing to climate change.

Since the start of the summer, forest fires have ignited in Yukon, where the situation was only recently declared to be stabilised, as well as across the border in Alaska, where over two million acres (809 thousand hectares) have been affected with the state experiencing temperature hikes at twice the international average. Given less attention has been the spate of wildfires currently plaguing much of Siberia, including the regions of Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Yamal, as well as in Yakutia, affecting a reported 2.3 million hectares. Smoke from these fires was reported in Tyumen, a city far to the west of the fire zones and located more than 2500 kilometres from Irkutsk.

Parts of the Nordic region have also been put on fire watches and alerts, with Sweden having to contend with forty separate fires, while the whole of the region has also experienced higher than 30ºC temperatures this month. Throughout the region, alarms have been raised about the amount of carbon dioxide and methane being released by the wildfires into the atmosphere, and the longer-term effects of black carbon and other particulate matter landing on ice and snow and accelerating the melting processes, contributing to ‘polar amplification’.

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A true-colour composite image of broken up sea ice in the Beaufort Sea, taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor on the NASA Terra satellite on July 8, 2019. [Photo via the Land Atmosphere Near-Real Time Capability for EOS (LANCE) System, NASA/GSFC / National Snow and Ice Data Centre]
Even Greenland has been put on notice for wildfires, two years after the first major incidents of such fires on the island were seen in the Kangerlussuaq region, driving home the fact that the Arctic was now bearing much of the brunt of changed weather patterns and temperature levels. This time around, a short-lived blaze was spotted in the area of Sisimiut in the south-western part of Greenland earlier this month, affecting safety conditions on the island’s Arctic Circle hiking trail and raising concerns about the effects of both regional fires and the heat wave in Europe on Greenland’s already vulnerable ice sheet. The last such accelerated melt of the ice sheet took place in 2012, and there is the question of what the melt this year will mean for Greenland and the surrounding area.

Danish specialists, via the country’s Polar Portal service, suggested that Greenland had already lost about 160 billion tonnes of surface ice just during the month of July. In a statement by the United Nations World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), forecasts suggested that the hot air currently in Europe, which originally arrived in the region via North Africa, will potentially be pushed to the north-west, over Greenland, by the end of the month, placing still more pressure on the ice sheet.