At a regular United Nations briefing in Geneva on July 12, WMO spokesperson Clare Nullis said the wildfires in the Arctic since the start of June are “unprecedented.”
“In June alone, these wildfires emitted 50 megatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere,” Nullis said. “This is the equivalent of Sweden’s annual total CO2 emissions. This is more than was released by Arctic fires in the same month between 2010 and 2018 combined.”
While wildfires are common in the northern hemisphere between the months of May and October, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), which has been tracking the fires, says the latitude and intensity of the fires, as well as the length of time they have been burning, have been particularly “unusual.”
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“It is unusual to see fires of this scale at such high latitudes in June,” CAMS senior scientist and wildfires expert Mark Parrington said in a press release. “But temperatures in the Arctic have been increasing at a much faster rate than the global average, and warmer conditions encourage fires to grow and persist once they have been ignited.”
Since the beginning of June, CAMS has tracked more than 100 intense and long-lived wildfires in the Arctic Circle.
The service says the fires have been the most severe in Alaska and Siberia, where some have been large enough to cover almost 100,000 football fields.
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One fire, farther south in Alberta, was estimated to have been more than 300,000 football fields in size.
CAMS says it has registered almost 400 wildfires in Alaska this year, with new ones igniting every day.
High temperatures and dry conditions
According to CAMS, the extreme wildfire activity can be explained, in part, by high temperatures and dry conditions.
In most of the Arctic, the temperature average from July 2018 to June 2019 was “much above” the 1981 to 2010 average, peaking near Alaska.
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“This is not Alaska type of weather,” Nullis said.
Meanwhile, in Siberia, the average temperature in parts of the province where wildfires are raging was almost 10 degrees higher than the 1981 to 2010 average.
CAMS says the wildfires in the Arctic are “especially worrisome.”
“Arctic wildfires are especially worrisome as particulate matter is more likely to settle on icy areas,” the release reads. “This darkens the ice, leading to sunlight being absorbed rather than reflected, which could exacerbate global warming.”
And, according to CAMS, wildfires emit different types of pollutants, many of which can affect human health.
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The organization says that while most of the Arctic Circle remains sparsely populated, humans cannot escape the dangers of the fires because wind can blow pollution thousands of kilometres away from the source, affecting air quality around the world.
-With files from Reuters.