Warming Arctic Means More Tundra Fires—And More Warming

US National Park Service/Public Domain

Bad news, boys and girls: new research shows that tundra fires in the Arctic increase as the climate warms. This seemingly intuitive finding could nonetheless have dire consequences. The tundra, after all, is home to one of the world's largest ticking carbon bomb, the carbon and methane-rich permafrost.

From the National Science Foundation:

In September 2007, the Anaktuvuk River Fire burned more than 1,000 square kilometers of tundra on Alaska's North Slope. This burn area was twice the size of any measured since recordkeeping began in 1950. A team of scientists from multiple universities, led by Feng Sheng Hu at the University of Illinois...analyzed the distribution of charcoal particles in lake-sediment cores and found no evidence of a fire of similar scale or intensity in the region over the past 5,000 years ...

They found a dramatic, nonlinear relationship between climate conditions and tundra fires. That is, once the temperature rises above a mean threshold--or what one may call a tipping point--of 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit), tundra burning increases dramatically.

Warmer climes, more fires. And more greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere—contributing to still-warmer climes. Hello, feedback loop.

As the NSF's Science 360 notes,

"Scientists found the fire released a significant amount of soil-bound carbon into the atmosphere. The 2.1 million metric tons of carbon released in the fire--roughly twice the amount of greenhouse gases put out by the city of Miami in a year--is significant enough to suggest that Arctic fires could impact the global climate, says ecologist Michelle Mack, an associate professor of ecosystem ecology at the University of Florida."
Like I said, bad news.

Tags: Alaska | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Effects

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