Short summary - the Arctic is always on fire in summer, and it’s a natural part of the ecosystem, to the extent that moose, bears, bison, voles, foxes, owls, birds of prey, …, they are all dependent on the fires directly or indirectly. It would be a very different ecosystem without them. Part of the Arctic burns every year but other areas recently burned grow new growth such as birches, berries, herbs, willow, grassland, others then are turning into mature forests of spruce, which burn when they become very dry, others are peat banks that again burn when they are very dry and it cycles round and round.
Articles that warn about the effects on global warming are a bit premature. You need to look at all the effects over multi-year periods.
At present the world as a whole is taking more CO2 from the atmosphere each year than it did even a few decades ago. According to one recent (2019) estimate it takes up about four times as much per year in the period 2007-2016 compared to 1901-1910 and has reduced atmospheric concentrations by a total of 85 ppm since pre-industrial, saving us from an extra temperature rise of 0.37 °C. I haven’t found figures for the Arctic regions specifically but it’s a significant fraction of that total.
We can prevent these fires if we need to. But so far the decision is to let them burn except in places where they threaten human habitats, industry, agriculture, or valuable forests.
This is because fires are a natural part of the Arctic ecosystem. In these areas they are normally started by lightning, not by humans. Actually most of the fires started by humans would be started by lightning eventually if we didn’t do it. California for instance, has had forest fires since long before humans were there. Actually the American Indians with controlled burning reduced the amount of fire, and part of the reason for the increased fires is that this is no longer done, and so the dry wood builds up and up, as it would do naturally leading to larger fires. But the ecosystem is one that is adjusted to fire, and indeed some plants in California need fire to survive. See my Why fires in California are part of the natural order and not a sign the world will end.
This is another article I'm writing to support people we help in the Facebook Doomsday Debunked group, that find us because they get scared, sometimes to the point of feeling suicidal about it, by such stories.
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Back to the Arctic, May to October are times when you get lots of wildfires in the higher latitudes. This has been a particularly bad year. The warm June, because of climate change, has made it warmer and drier. These do release a lot of CO2. However there is a lot of natural carbon capture each year as well in these regions due to the peat growing, forest, grass etc. The fires are a natural part of the ecosystem, and they do not wish to end them altogether. For instance without fires, there would probably be no moose in Alaska and it would make things much harder for the bears.
Example of fires in Alaska
I will summarize the section on fires by the Alaska Centers (Public lands information)
Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem there. It’s the reason it is so biodiverse with a network of habitats of meadows, shrub lands, birch and spruce forests. Without the fires, much of it would be uniform spruce forest.
For instance when Captain Cook entered Cook inlet in the 1700’s he found no moose on what is now called the Kenai peninsula, because it was covered in spruce which moose don’t like. He found mainly caribou.
Fires there in 1941 probably burnt off the spruce, and created stands of first growth birch, willow and aspen. The area is now ideal for moose. According to biologists, fire is necessary for those species, and without them there wouldn’t be any moose in Alaska.
As another example, the 1971 Bear Creek fire burned 345,000 acres and after that fire, grass grew up making it ideal for bison herds. The area is now managed with repeating burning for bison.
So, the areas burnt by fires in one year become a big carbon sink in the following years. When they talk about the large amounts of CO2 released, remember that over a timescale of decades the area will be taking all that CO2 back in again, and the whole area is a patchwork of habitats in a natural cycle, some burn but meanwhile the others are all growing vigorously.
- Help grasses and shrubs to grow - that leads to meadow voles and other rodents, and grouse. They in turn bring the foxes, martens and birds of prey
- Encourage herbs and willow shoots, also new berry bushes. These bring moose and bears.
- Recycle the nutrients back into the soil
- Clear the shrubbery, warm the soil, drying the soil out. That leads to better drainage and improved fertility
They are also used for land management, for instance to encourage biodiversity, to remove all the old wood from logged areas for reafforestation, to clear land, as fire breaks, reduce fire hazard or to prepare it for other uses.
For this reason they have different fire protection levels.
- Critical - human habitations have to be protected as top priority
- Full protection - historic structures, valuable commercial timber, and other valuable resources - act swiftly to limit number of acres burned
- Modified action - based on assessment of the cost and benefits - most protection at times that they risk large damaging fires
- Limited action - natural fires are beneficial or costs of fighting are great than fire damage - aim is to keep it within a designated area or protect critical sites within it.
See also Current Fire Information in Alaska
So - the authorities are not being negligent or lax. They could stop these fires if it was thought to be worth the expense to do it. But it’s not clear that it is.
If we did find that these fires were an important feedback that increase climate change then we could fight them and stop them.
Actually it’s not clear that there is a significant trend in the areas burnt by fires, at least in Alaska:
Data: see comment
All the burnt areas are not likely to burn again in the near future, and would become areas of growth of shrubs and grassland, over the next several years.
Actually this is used as a way to stop fires. You can put out a fire without using a drop of water. it is a technique used in some of the drier countries and recently we have started to use it in Scotland (though it has been used by game keepers managing grouse moors for a long time).
The method is to clear a strip of vegetation down to the bare soil using hand tools. You then slowly burn back from that to create a “black strip” and once it is wide enough, the fires can’t jump over it, so when it gets to it, it just burns out. It is usually so wet in Scotland that the fire service have never needed to use this method. But now they are, learning from drier countries and how they tackle fires.
As the climate warms, there will probably be more fires like this. However, with the melting permafrost then there will be more areas of tundra, where before there was nothing but ice and mosses, that now open up to shrubs, grassland, trees and for peat to start growing again, as well as conventional agriculture.
Because of the balance of these two things, it’s not so clear that the end result would be a carbon loss. Actually at present the melting permafrost seems to be acting as a net carbon sink, and this is likely to continue for at least some decades.
If we can stay within 1.5°C then the effect of the permafrost melting may well be a carbon sink indefinitely, and even at 3°C then it’s not clear if it is a sink or a source of CO2 through to 2100. There are articles published both ways and the ones that say it will be a source get far more publicity than the ones that say it will be a sink.
From a 2018 review, the range of possible outcomes are a loss of CO2 by 2299 of 66 gtons through to a gain of 70 gtons.
That’s for 2.4°C by 2100 (RCP 4.5), a target that is well within range with just a small ramp up of our 3°C current pledges.
For more details scroll down to “RESULT OF THE 2018 REVIEW” in this article:
- Arctic Canadian and Siberian permafrost carbon release significant but exaggerated in news stories - fraction of a degree rise in worst case - and can even be a carbon sink instead of emitter
The BBC article on this topic has a fair bit of good material in it, but it is only putting one side of the situation as regards climate change:
Scientists say what we're seeing is evidence of the kind of feedbacks we should expect in a warmer world, where increased concentrations of greenhouse gases drive more warming, which then begets the conditions that release yet more carbon into the atmosphere.
A lot of the particulate matter from these fires will eventually come to settle on ice surfaces further north, darkening them and thus accelerating melting.
It's all part of a process of amplification
It makes it sound as if it is a process we can’t stop, as if we have to stand by helplessly while the forests burn. But we could stop this easily if we wanted to. We could put in the resources to keep stopping the fires every year. Or we could limit them. Find them early on and keep them within small areas. This would cost a bit more but if it was needed the money could surely be found as part of climate change mitigation.
However the amounts being released aren’t that large. This figure from the same article may seem impressive:
In June, the fires released an estimated 50 megatonnes of carbon dioxide - the equivalent of Sweden's annual carbon output, according to Cams.
However, yearly human CO2 emissions are around 30 gigatons a year.
50 megatons is 0.05 gigatons. When every country needs to work together to prevent global warming, Sweden’s annual carbon output is significant.
However, as a natural flux amongst all the various factors that make up the vast areas of the Arctic in Siberia Alaska and northern Canada, it is just one part of the whole.
Meanwhile the permafrost are currently removing large amounts of CO2 through fertilization effects.
As an example a recent 2018 review looked at the possible effects of permafrost melting in the Arctic regions under various scenarios. With a global warming of 2.4°C by 2100 (RCP 4.5), the models for the effects of permafrost melting in the Arctic regions range from 66 gtons loss of CO2 to a 70 gtons gain BY 2299.
For details see Dependence of the evolution of carbon dynamics in the northern permafrost region on the trajectory of climate change (A petagram is the same as a gigaton, a billion metric tons).
This also depends on how we manage the Arctic tundra as the permafrost melts. We don’t just stand by passively. We can drain soils, irrigate them, control fires or let them burn, and manage the area in various ways.
Over the past 10 years (2007–2016) the total terrestrial carbon sink has removed an estimated 3.61 gigatons of carbon a year from the atmosphere, which amounts to 33.7% of total anthropogenic emissions from industrial activity and land-use change. This shows some of the main processes that influence whether the land is a sink or a source.
The carbon sequestration in oceans leads to acidification - which some species like sponges like, but others like corals do not respond well to - and it can also be harmful to sea butterflies that use aragonite for their shells and young oysters. But on the land it is all round beneficial to plant growth.
This land sink has increased hugely. This section is from a 2019 study, : Have Synergies Between Nitrogen Deposition and Atmospheric CO2 Driven the Recent Enhancement of the Terrestrial Carbon Sink?.
Since 1901-1910 to 2007-2016 the amount of CO2 sequestered by our ecosystems has quadrupled from 0.8 to 3.2 gigatons per year.
The paper I’m using here talks about the Net Biome Production (NBP in the paper) which is calculated as the Net Primary Production - Heterotrophic Respiration (HR) - Fire. It is an estimate of the amount of CO2 taken up by the biome every year.
This shows various estimates of how much it has changed:
The black cross there shows the effect without nitrogen deposition - the nitrogen fertilization effect alone has increased from 0.2 gigatons a year in the 1960s to 0.7 gigatons a year in the 2010s.
They say in that paper that according to one estimate, land sinks so far have lowered atmospheric CO₂ by 85 ppm, and prevented an extra 0.31 C of warming since pre-industrial times.
This map shows which regions of the world are absorbing more CO2 than they were before, and which are absorbing less, over the last century. It shows the CHANGES between 2007–2016 and 1901–1910 in grams of carbon per square meter per year (for amounts of CO2 you’d need to multiply these figures by 44/12).
As you can see, many areas of Alaska, Canada and Siberia are absorbing more than they did before, though some, the patches shown in blue, are absorbing less.
This is a result of several things. The extra CO2 has a fertilizing effect. But as well as that, as we burn fossil fuels, these bring more nitrates to fertilize the soil (which in its extreme form becomes the nitric acid of acid rain) as well as the nitrates used as fertilizer. That helps plants to grow faster.
The warmer climate also leads to more plant growth, in northern climates especially (though it also can inhibit growth through droughts).
Then there are synergistic effects where the climate warming leads to a longer growing season and more moisture in the northern latitudes which in turn increases the CO2 fertilization. Also the nitrogen deposition can increase the CO2 fertilization effect which without the extra nitrogen would be reduced because of the nitrogen limitations.
You can see the effects here, this shows the CHANGES in grams per square meter per year. I.e. red means 50 or more grams per square meter increase in the yearly CO2 update:
CO2 fertilization alone
- Nitrogen fertilization alone. Notice how the industrial areas have increased nitrogen deposition effects in b.
- Climate alone leads to increased growing season and more soil moisture in northern latitudes. This also increases nitrogen mineralization in the soil (nitrogen fixation)
- Combining climate with nitrogen, this completely turns things around in many areas which were limited due to insufficient nitrogen
- Combining climate with carbon has substantial effects in the tropics as well as mid to high latitudes where the increased plant growth due to climate change is increased further by the fertilization effect
- This combines all the effects together.
They end the paper saying
With signs of the warming hiatus ending and the potential for increased nutrient limitation in the future with higher demand under enhanced CO2, along with the potential for reductions in nitrogen deposition in some regions, it remains unclear how long the terrestrial carbon sink can continue to grow in line with fossil fuel emissions. Resolving this question is critical for resolving nutrient cycling and global change in the future.
It is hard to know for sure how this will continue, but at present as the climate warms, the world is taking more, rather than less CO2 out of the atmosphere every year. We can do a lot to help it to do this, into the future, by encouraging reafforestation, restoring degraded land, and through encouraging healthier soils with the way we do agriculture.
However, getting back to the wild fires, whether we need to control wildfires, or let them burn, is something that needs detailed analysis by the ecologists and climate scientists, and it also depends on political and social decisions about the ecosystems, and whether certain areas need to be protected from fire. So far the decision for most of them has been to let them burn, but to protect some areas from fires with differing levels of protection.
If needs be then they just need to stop the fires - which means more expense but easily do-able. Russia under public pressure has just got the military involved in stopping its fires
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