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Zombie fires in Arctic region cause of worry: Why is Arctic on fire, what will be its impact on global climate?

The Arctic fires are now burning earlier and farther north, even in those landscapes that were previously thought to be fire resistant, as per a new study. What will be impact of this on global climate and how can we resolve this? Get Details here. 

Oct 1, 2020 15:02 IST
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Zombie fires have been raging across the Arctic region, becoming more frequent than ever in addition to the fires occurring in the once-frozen tundra, as per a study. This is a great cause of worry as this shows that the fire regimes in the Arctic are changing rapidly.

For long we knew that the Arctic was melting but now it is also on fire. The Arctic fires are now burning earlier and farther north, even in those landscapes that were previously thought to be fire-resistant.

The Arctic region is warming up twice as fast as the rest of the world due to climate change. These zombie fires could completely transform the pace and scope  of global warming in ways that could affect us all. Already, the Arctic is transforming with the melting ice caps, shift in tree-line and starving polar bears. 

What is a Zombie Fire?

The Zombie fire is a fire that is left over from the previous growing season that can burrow into the rich organic material beneath the surface that is made up of carbon-rich peat and smoulder under the snowpack throughout the frigid winter. When the weather warms, the fire reignites and refuses to die, as per a study by scientists from the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado in the United States.

According to the scientists monitoring the Arctic wildfire trends, with the Siberian Arctic seeing record warm conditions in recent weeks and months, they have become more convinced that some of the fires erupting in the Arctic now are actually left over from last season. 

Formerly fire-resistant areas also on fire

Another great concern is the fact that the Arctic wildfires are now spreading to areas that were formerly fire-resistant such as the tundra region, which lies at the north of the Arctic Circle. 

The tundra region is drying up and vegetation there including moss, grass, dwarf shrubs are starting to catch fire, as per a study published in Nature Geoscience.

While wildfires on permafrost in Siberia south of the Arctic are not uncommon, but a research team discovered that in 2019 and 2020 the wildfires had  spread well above the Arctic Circle, a region that is not usually known to support wildfires.

Why is Arctic warming up?

The Arctic region is warming up largely due to changes in albedo- the loss of sunlight-reflecting ice and snow, replaced by sunlight-absorbing ocean and soil, which is resulting in heat spirals. The temperatures in Siberia rose steeply in 2020 with the region recording a severe heatwave. The melting of ice is now accompanied by wildfires. 

Almost all of this year's wildfires inside the Arctic Circle occurred on the continuous permafrost, with over half of these burning on ancient carbon-rich peat soils.

What will be the impact of these wildfires?

The record high temperatures and zombie fires have the potential of turning the carbon sink into a carbon source and increase global warming. The fires are unlocking huge amounts of carbon locked away in the trees, leaf litter and soil of Arctic forests and releasing them into the atmosphere.

According to a research paper published in 2015, zombie fires or smouldering fires can pose a bigger threat to the global climate, as they burn for much longer and can transfer heat much deeper into the soil and permafrost and consuming twice as much carbon-rich fuel as normal fires do.

What can be done to resolve the issue?

According to the latest study, there is an urgent need to understand the nature of fires in the Arctic that are evolving and changing rapidly. The study states that the issue is so important to the climate system that it had to be taken up as an issue of global importance.

The study has urged global cooperation, investment and action in monitoring fires and called for learning from the indigenous peoples of the Arctic about how the fire was traditionally used. The study also suggested that new permafrost- and peat-sensitive approaches to wildland fire fighting were needed to save the Arctic. 

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