'Zombie Fires' in the Arctic pump out carbon at record pace

Smoke rises from wildfires near the Berezovka River in Russia in this June 23, 2020, infrared image. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - Wildfires that have raged in the Arctic Circle since early spring led to a record spike in pollution from the infernos last month.

Arctic fires emitted 16.3 tonnes of carbon in June, the highest since at least 2003 and almost nine times more than the same month in 2018, according to data from Europe's Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.

The previous June record was registered last year, when fires were the worst on record.

The Arctic region is heating twice as fast as the rest of the world, leading to sea ice melting faster than scientists forecast.

The warm air spreading from Siberia across the Arctic does not directly cause wildfires, but coupled with low soil moisture levels and low precipitation, it can contribute to ripe conditions for fires to spread.

"The June 2020 map shows that the fire activity has been further to the east in the Siberian Arctic than in 2019, with more widespread fires in the non-Arctic parts of eastern Siberia," Cams senior scientist Mark Parrington said by e-mail.

"It is very surprising how similar the daily trend in the fire activity has been compared to 2019, especially as it is so unusual to all the other years of data that we have."

This year, some parts of the Arctic registered temperatures as much as 16 deg C higher than usual in May and the town of Verkhoyansk in Siberia hit 38 degrees Celsius last month.

The fire season, which usually starts in early May and picks up at the beginning of June started earlier, with satellites registering wildfires as soon as March.

The fires typically burn through forests and peatlands in Siberia, a region that straddles across all of northern Russia and is home to the world's largest forest.

The dry vegetation on these vast plains can burn under the snowpack of winter and Copernicus data from May suggested that high temperatures were reigniting these "zombie fires".

Last year, scientists were baffled as they recorded fires burning in some parts of Siberia and Alaska for longer than they had ever seen.

The wildfires emitted about 182 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through the season.

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