What Megablazes Tell Us About the Fiery Future of Climate Change
Steep reductions in greenhouse pollution can lessen the danger going forward, as Inslee suggests. But the dark reality is that significant future burning has already been locked in. In parts of the West, very large fires will increase sixfold by midcentury, according to a new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. With our nation’s firefighting resources tapped out by the fires of the present, America finds itself woefully unprepared for the blazes to come, much less the worst-case scenario: a Katrina by fire.
For a glimpse of the future, look north, to Alaska and the Arctic — which President Obama, during a visit to Anchorage this summer, highlighted as “the leading edge of climate change.” Soaring temperatures and an early-melting snowpack have brought raging wildfires to landscapes that have not been kissed by flame for millennia. “Climate change is no longer some far-off problem,” Obama declared. “It is happening here. It is happening now.”
The world is warming most toward the poles, and temperatures in Alaska have been increasing nearly twice as fast as the rest of the country in the past 60 years — up almost three degrees. And the state’s average fire season has increased by more than a month — 35 days — since the 1950s. “We can detect the climate-change influence on fire,” says Glenn Juday, a forest ecologist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, who points to three indicators all on the upswing: “the area burned, the severity of the burning and then the frequency.”
The tragedy of climate-driven megafire is that the fires themselves worsen global warming by pumping megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is especially true north of the Arctic Circle. For the past 5,000 years, the Arctic Alaskan tundra was too frigid and too wet to support significant wildfire. That changed in 2007, when a massive blaze ripped through Alaska’s North Slope. The fire burned more than 400 square miles, not only charring a pristine landscape, but setting off a greenhouse bomb, igniting organic matter in the soil that had lain dormant for centuries. This single fire released as much carbon dioxide into the air as the Arctic’s entire tundra ecosystem, including the northern reaches of Canada and Russia, had absorbed in the previous quarter century. Scientists long considered the tundra the “most secure storehouse of carbon — fixed carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere — that you could possibly think of,” says Juday. “It was frozen — and a thick mat of it. We never thought a big chunk of it would burn. It’s astounding.” What’s worse: Tundra fire also thins the soil layer that insulates permafrost, further destabilizing this terrifying reserve of greenhouse gases.
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