WILDFIRES that erupted across the Arctic this summer are the worst to hit the region since reliable records began.
Scientists studying the blazes, which engulfed large regions of Russia and Canada, say more than 100 fires have sprung up in the Arctic since June.
Using new data, the team calculated that the infernos released as much carbon in the first half of July than a nation the size of Cuba does in a year.
The data was collected by the European Union’s Earth-monitoring group, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS).
“Obviously it’s concerning,” CAMS senior scientist Mark Parrington told the BBC.
“We really hadn’t expected to see these levels of wildfires yet.”
The so-called “zombie fires” are remnants of record blazes seen in Arctic regions last year, including Siberia and northern Canada.
As previously documented in other cold regions, such as Alaska, wildfires can survive underground during winter and then reignite in spring.
It’s thought that the 2020 blazes between June and August reemerged due to an unusually warm and dry spring.
According to the new CAMS data, collected using satellite imagery, this year’s wildfires have been the worst for the Arctic since reliable records began 17 years ago.
The 100 fires tracked by the team were “unprecedented in scale and duration”, the group said, and resulted in the release of 50 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Fires occurred across the Arctic Circle in the Sakha Republic of Siberia and Alaska, researchers said.
The Arctic is one of Earth’s most rapidly warming regions and experienced unprecedented wildfires in 2019.
Areas of Alaska, Canada, Siberia and Greenland were engulfed in flames and smoke, largely due to hot weather and a spate of dry storms.
In Russia alone, an estimated 3.3million hectares of remote forest burned in 2019 – equivalent to more than six million football fields.
Hot spots for more recent zombie fires appear to cover many of the same regions that burned last year.
The worry is that regular blazes will deplete the Arctic tundra of its carbon-rich peat, where fires are thought to smoulder for months undetected.
This makes the Arctic more vulnerable to further fires.
“The destruction of peat by fire is troubling for so many reasons,” Dorothy Peteet, a a senior research scientist at Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, told Earth Observatory.
“As the fires burn off the top layers of peat, the permafrost depth may deepen, further oxidizing the underlying peat.”
As well as the risk to plant and wildlife, there’s a worry that air pollutants released by the blazes could drift to other parts of the world.
“Traditionally, the boreal fire season lasts from May to October with peak activity taking place between July and August,” CAMS said.
“During past events in Canada, for example, CAMS has been able to detect smoke travelling over the Atlantic Ocean to Europe in just a couple of days.”
In other news, the mercury in Siberia hit a staggering 41C earlier this year, sparking wildfires.
Blazes in the notoriously freezing region were so severe that Nasa could photograph them from space.
And, a shocking video has revealed how much of Earth was on fire during 2019.
What do you think of the Arctic wildfires? Let us know in the comments!
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