In the winter, Alaska is a land of ice. In the summer, it’s all fire.
Just as climate change is causing the state’s sea ice and permafrost to melt, it’s also causing its fires to burn with far greater intensity. Between 1950 and 1990, 25 million acres of Alaskan forest burned. Between 1990 and 2015, fires consumed 37 million acres.
In 2015 alone, 5.2 million acres were torched. That’s an area of forest nearly 10 times as large as what was lost in the tenacious fires that roared through California in 2016.
“That pretty much erased about 20 years worth of carbon accumulation in the forests here,” said Scott Rupp, an expert on Alaska’s forests at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
All around the world, deforestation is depleting vital carbon sinks — parts of nature that absorb and store large quantities carbon — and this is causing a vicious cycle of natural climate buffers becoming less reslient.
In Alaska, a potent combination of higher temperatures, less precipitation, and young forests are making the state’s forests match boxes. These wildfires are causing immense harm to animals like caribou and vegetation like lichen, two vital parts of the regional ecosystem.
"[The loss of caribou] has impacts particularly on indigenous people in the state who very much practice a subsistence lifestyle," Rupp said.
The smog from the fires is also making the air difficult to breathe in many places.
It’s often difficult to tie an environmental event directly to climate change because there are usually numerous instigating factors at play. But Alaska’s forest fires “are very much linked to climate and the changes in climate that we’ve seen,” according to Rupp.
In June, average precipitation in Alaska is generally less inch. The state, meanwhile, is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the US.
“In interior Alaska it’s already a very dry environment,” Rupp said. “We live in essentially a sub-arctic dessert.”
To make matters worse, the state is facing huge budget deficits that are leading to cuts across the board. Even as fires rage out of control, some fire fighting funds have been cut.
Rupp said that Alaska’s fire fighting forces are the most proactive in the US because of the remote and inhospitable locations. Most fires rage in places where humans don’t really live and fighting them can be challenging.
Right now, “their focus is on mitigating loss of life and property versus trying to change carbon stocks.”
Elsewhere in the US, there has been a push to prevent fires by logging forests and clearing zones that have already burned — if there’s no trees and no vegetation, then no fires, the thinking goes.
But this is misleading.
When forests burn, they leave behind a rich soot that actually protects a forest from future fires. If you clear this soot away, young trees with no defense mechanisms that grow in the aftermath will be utterly vulnerable and fires will be more likely to occur.
Alaska seems beleaguered on all sides by climate change — melting permafrost from below, less precipitation from above, and brutal forest fires all around — and in the years ahead it will have to reconsider its entire fossil fuel-centric identity.
At some point, there’ll be a reckoning: give up fossil fuels, or watch vast swaths of the state burn to ground.