Wildfires in the Arctic released more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere this past June than the average annual amount released by all of Sweden, according to the World Meteorological Society(WMO).
In fact, the recent wildfires, which numbered in the hundreds, released more carbon dioxide than all the fires that occurred in the previous eight Junes combined. Fires of this intensity have not been seen for more than 10,000 years in the region.
The unprecedented blazes reflect the hazards of climate change, according to the WMO. As global temperatures rise and precipitation patterns change because of greenhouse gas emissions accumulating in the atmosphere, catastrophic forest fires are becoming more likely.
Throughout the Arctic, ancient boreal forests are drying out due to heat waves and lack of rainfall. As a result, fires can spread through them more rapidly and are more likely to consume large tracts of land.
Some of the fires tracked by WMO satellites measure more than 100,000 football fields in size. One fire even covered the same area as 300,000 football fields.
Worldwide, forest fires are becoming more common, intense, and long-lasting. They are also contributing to climate change more broadly.
Forests are carbon sinks, which means they absorb enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from the air, but as trees burn, they both release carbon and become unable to store more carbon. The WMO notes that forest fires in parts of Canada in 2014 nearly halved the amount of carbon dioxide that had been stored that year in the region.
The Arctic is especially vulnerable to fires stoked by climate change, the WMO notes. Smoke particles from fires land on snow and allow more sunlight to absorbed, which accelerates snowmelt, making the region more prone to future fires. The polar regions are also warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, according to the WMO.
Unprecedented #wildfires in #Arctic. Over past 6 weeks @CopernicusEU#Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) has tracked more than 100 intense fires in the Arctic Circle. In June alone, these fires emitted 50 megatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere = Sweden’s total annual emissions. pic.twitter.com/poQWzutgAA— WMO | OMM (@WMO) July 12, 2019
In addition to worsening climate change, the forest fires raging in the Arctic have major consequences on wildlife. Animals such as caribou are being forced to flee their homes and move to new, potentially dangerous, homes habitats, and lichen, a critical source of food for many animals, is being destroyed.
Fires are also causing extensive air pollution, which can pose serious health problems for humans. Unless greenhouse gas emissions are curbed in the years ahead, they'll likely keep getting worse.