This post originally appeared on Yale Environment 360 and is reposted with permission.
Ted Schuur has spent the better part of his career making the connection between climate change and wildfires that are burning an increasing amount of land in Alaska and in sub-Arctic and Arctic forests around the world. So the Northern Arizona University scientist wasn’t all that surprised this summer to find his field stations in the interior of Alaska surrounded by fires on three sides. At the time, the state was well on track to recording its second-worst fire season ever.
The surprise came in mid-summer when Schuur took a few days off from his research to attend a meeting in Colorado. He had hoped the trip would give him a break from Alaska’s noxious smoke. The smoke in Boulder, however, was so thick that the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment was advising parents with young children and people with heart disease and respiratory problems to limit their outdoor activities.
As Schuur soon learned, the pall of smoke in Denver had actually drifted down from a large number of forest fires in the Pacific Northwest and Canada. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this summer,” says Schuur. “It seemed like half the continent was on fire at one time or another.”
Schuur wasn’t exaggerating. In June, as many as 25,000 men and women were fighting thousands of wildfires that were burning out of control in states such as Alaska, Washington, California, and Idaho, and in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. But as severe as the fire situation was this year in the Lower 48 and Canada, it was the really big fires in Alaska and Siberia that captured the attention of meteorologists and fire experts. Because of rapidly rising temperatures, and in some cases, inadequate or antiquated forest management practices, massive wildfires such as these are becoming increasingly common in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of the world, scientists say.
According to a report recently released by the non-profit organization Climate Central, the number of large wildfires in the Arctic increased nearly tenfold in the first decade of this century compared to the 1950s and 1960s. Only three years in the 1950s and 1960s saw large wildfires in this region. Since 2000, there have been 33 large wildfires in the Arctic, including those in 2004 that burned six percent of Alaska and four percent of the Yukon.
Fire experts agree the situation will likely get much worse as rising temperatures, drier conditions, and increasing thunderstorms and lightning strikes lead to more fires burning even bigger, hotter, faster, and deeper into the ground than at any time in recorded history. According to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, the extent of area burned in Alaskan wildfires is projected to double by 2050 and triple by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not quickly brought under control and runaway Arctic warming continues.
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