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  • Writer's pictureEloise Bristow

What Arctic fires tell us about the urgency of climate change

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

by Eloise Bristow

Why Siberian forest fires call for urgent climate change adaptation policies, not just mitigation strategies.

With the US media saturated with news of the coronavirus pandemic and all eyes on coverage of the presidential election this year, one of the most significant climate impacts stood largely out of view: record-breaking Arctic wildfires in north Siberia.

Just how damaging were the 2020 Arctic forest fires?

Forest fires in the West, storms in the Southeast, and crop failures in the Midwest have disrupted the lives and incomes of millions of people across the United States. But further afield, record-breaking fires tore across the Arctic tundra this summer, blazing the boreal forest and carpeting neighbouring cities in soot. Estimates suggest that roughly half of fires were fuelled by peatland, otherwise known as our most dense terrestrial carbon stores.

While fires are native to the forests of the continental United States, the cold temperatures in the forests of the Arctic Circle means that the forests there seldon burn, or even decay. The buildup of organic matter in the soil results in the enormous carbon reservoirs in the Arctic that are now on fire. The size of this year and last year’s Siberian fires, and their location in the extreme north, and the amount of greenhouse gasses that they are releasing as a result, are unprecedented, and such are perhaps the both starkest climate signal and climate threat of recent years. The fires resulted in a release of 245 megatonnes of carbon dioxide according to the EU's Copernicus atmosphere monitoring service - that’s the same quantity produced by Spain in one year. For scale, by just June and July, more carbon dioxide was by the fires burning in Siberia than in any complete fire season since records began in 2003.

How does climate change cause wildfires?

Fires can be a confusing climate impact to pin down as they are a critical part of the natural ecosystem of many forests, including the Western Forests. However, climate change is unquestionably stressing the landscape of the West Coast by contributing to the duration and intensity of fires, as well shifting the locations that fires are burning. In the West, there are many local adaptation measures available which can cushion the severity of the fires and the number of people impacted. We are fortunate that for now, there is room to respond to these changing conditions, but the same cannot be said for the fires of the Arctic circle.

The emergence of burning peatland in the extreme north creates the feedback loop of a warmer world. Climate change makes these fires more likely to occur. Once they have occurred, they, in turn, hasten climate change through their release of a dumping of excess CO2 and methane into the atmosphere, leading to a rise in global temperatures. The warmer and--in some regions like the West and Siberia--drier climate increases the vulnerability of forests regions to ignition, which in turn further exacerbates climate change.

While many climate impacts, such as the fires in the West, are a combination of local environmental mismanagement and global climate change, the thawing of the permafrost is essentially a purely climate impact, driven by drought and record temperatures. Local adaptation will have no impact on these fires. Because the population of Siberia is comparatively low, the human impact of this is limited in the short term, but a continuation of the burning tundra will create global humanitarian issues in the long run.

How does this compare to climate change prediction models?

RCP 8.5 was once considered a ‘worst case scenario’ for what climate change will look like in the future. But the last decade has demonstrated that our global emissions have closely hugged the curve of the RCP8.5 predictions since it’s release. The model now stands as our most reliable proposition for long term resiliency planning, and any scheme not accounting for this trajectory at least until 2050 is likely to underinvest and undershoot their target.

The unprecedented rate of the permafrost collapse in the far North raises the specter of even outpacing the RCP8.5 scenario. A study in nature points to this, anticipating permafrost thawing by 2100 in ice-dense areas of Siberia, that is twelve times higher than in the RCP8.5 scenario.

Climate change adaptation or mitigation policies: what’s the solution?

Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, has said that “The premature thawing is a clear sign that we must decarbonize our economies immediately”. This is by now axiomatic, but decarbonizing our economies will not stop the profound changes that are coming and have already come to landscapes around the world.

Coping with climate change, once a global problem of mitigation, has in the last five years rapidly become a local problem of adaptation. But whether it’s the Russians dealing with a burning Arctic, or Southeastern States of the US combating rising sea levels, making investment decisions will require profound reassessment of the climate crisis. This starts with a realistic view of the landscape we’re in now, as well as accounting for forward looking projections of where we’re heading in the coming decades.

No matter what we do now with mitigation, forests will continue to burn, sea levels will continue to rise. The urgency is in conversations about what new and resilient landscapes that we can foster and where investments for this will come from. The climate impacts we are feeling is not the new normal we will learn to live with. We are entering a period of rapid change where there is no normal anymore, only a snowballing into years of constant change, for which communities globally will face the damage. This is only the beginning.

contributions from Sieren Ernst

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