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As the arctic warms, wildfires spread toxic air pollution far and wide

The most visible symptom of runaway arctic warming is not rising sea levels — a topic for another article — but the huge number of wildfires now in progress.

Wildfires during the arctic summer are not unusual. However, the intensity and number of wildfires this year is unprecedented in the instrumented era. Via the BBC, here is an image marking the fires from NASA polar orbiting satellites a little earlier this summer.

After the hottest day on record in the Netherlands, Germany, and even Paris on Thursday, the extraordinarily heated high pressure dome migrated north to above the arctic circle on Friday into the weekend. This is bringing the ongoing warming to a peak not observed before. The upper air features looked like this on Saturday.

The map on the left in the link above shows the highest pressure aloft to be over far northern Sweden. A ridge of that strength and warmth would more typically be found near the latitude of Kentucky or Virginia in the lower 48. To see this heat dome located where it is reads simply stunning to any atmospheric scientist.

What are some of the consequences of such widespread and intense wildfires? Most of these fires are in thinly populated regions of Alaska, eastern Russia, northern Scandinavia and Greenland. The smoke from these fires, though, has sent toxic air pollution far downwind, especially in parts of Siberia, into more populated regions.

In the more typical summer fires of past decades, these fires actually produced some ecological benefits to the regions affected, in cyclical burning. This year and last, these extremely intense and widespread fires have been spreading with ferocity, releasing in June alone an estimated 50 billion tons of carbon – the approximate yearly carbon release for the nation of Sweden. Much of the arctic region has become a tinderbox, with dried, carbon-rich peat on the forest floor. Occasional lightning strikes, hot and dry air, and strong winds aided and abetted by the heat and the fires makes control essentially hopeless.

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With the predicted accelerated arctic warming verifying and exceeding 1980s climate model forecasts, another key impact is the thawing permafrost. In a 2018 article, Discover magazine covered some of the unfolding ecological disasters. From Bridget Alex’s article: “Homes are sinking and trees are tipping over in Alaska. Mammoth bones are surfacing in the Russian Far East – so many that people have begun selling the tusks as a substitute for elephant ivory. And in 2016, more than 70 people in western Siberia were hospitalized for exposure to anthrax, likely spread from a decades-old reindeer carcass that thawed from frozen ground.

“In 2016, meltwater seeped into the entrance tunnel of the Global Seed Vault, a subterranean facility in Arctic Norway nicknamed the Doomsday Vault. There, millions of collected seeds are supposed to stay frozen indefinitely, with little upkeep, a safeguard to restart agriculture should the world’s crops be lost in a large-scale disaster. No seeds were harmed – the water refroze long before reaching the vault – but the breach made the world wonder: Will the Doomsday Vault last until doomsday?”

About a quarter of all ice-free land in the northern hemisphere has been covered by and sits atop permafrost. This NASA map shows in blue where most of the permafrost is found.

Jeff Rasic, archaeologist for Gates of the Arctic Circle National Park in Alaska, told Discover the permafrost is “turning to mush.” The warming causes erosion, structural damage where natives live, and even the release of frozen pathogens that come back to life upon thawing. Permafrost contains enormous volumes of frozen organic matter. An estimated 1,500 billion tons of carbon are stored, and the rate of carbon release is speeding up. This estimated carbon total is more than twice the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. A feedback mechanism I’ve written about in past articles is in play. The more carbon released to the atmosphere by melting permafrost, the more warming results … which melts more permafrost … which releases more carbon … and so on.

As for the spread of pathogens, the concern is valid. Russian researchers have been able to do controlled experiments in which they could bring back 30,000-year-old viruses from thawed permafrost and infect amoeba with them in controlled experiments. We already know thousands of anthrax-infected reindeer lie just below the surface in parts of Siberia in a zone where some thawing occurs. Given enough thawing, this anthrax will return to the environment. It is something of a relief to know French microbiologist Jean Michel Claverie told Discover he feels there is little danger of a global pandemic from this particular virus (anthrax). It’s a highly recognizable disease. Yes, there would be some victims in the region, but Claverie believes they can be quarantined to prevent further spread.

Less is known about what other viruses and toxins are trapped in the permafrost. There are some controlled experiments to speed up the thaw on small sections of permafrost to investigate what else is in it, so we might be better prepared for the future.

In the meantime, we know some arctic communities are already being abandoned as erosion and structural damage makes living in these places untenable, with many more to come.

The feedback mechanism is not an unproven hypothesis. It is quite real and not in question. How much of the permafrost will eventually melt is in humanity’s hands, because it is directly tied to the carbon-linked warming coming from human activity. The differences in impacts from best case-but-still-nasty scenarios to calamitous worst case scenarios are so large, governments and societies can’t afford to take on an inaccurate belief that it’s already too late. Consensus is we can still lessen the severity of what lies ahead.

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