How Arctic Fires Are Impacting Earth's Atmosphere

Aug 21, 2019
Originally published on August 21, 2019 8:14 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Wildfires are sweeping across the top of the planet. This summer alone, hundreds of wildfires have burned millions of acres of forest in Alaska, northern Canada and Siberia. Scientists at the University of Alaska's International Arctic Research Center see a link to climate change. As temperatures rise, they say fires are getting bigger, hotter and more frequent. Here to talk about all of this is Nancy Fresco. She is a climate scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Thanks for joining us.

NANCY FRESCO: Thank you very much for having me.

CHANG: So I have to admit when I first heard the Arctic is on fire, I was like, what? I think of ice when I think of the Arctic, not wildfires.

FRESCO: It's true. A lot of people don't realize that we're actually in a forested ecosystem that is about 1 1/2 times as big as the lower 48 states, to give you some perspective.

CHANG: Wow.

FRESCO: As a reference, we've had over 2 1/2 million acres burn here in Alaska this summer, and that's about the combined area of Rhode Island and Delaware.

CHANG: OK. So very briefly, can you just explain how wildfires happen in the Arctic? Because, like, say, in California, they happen when temperatures get really, really, really hot. But that doesn't happen in the Arctic.

FRESCO: Well, increasingly, it's happening more and more. We had the hottest July on record up here in Alaska. The city of Anchorage hit 90 degrees for the first time ever.

CHANG: Wow.

FRESCO: And that does drive wildfires. It gets dry. It gets hot.

CHANG: Yeah.

FRESCO: Fires burn naturally here. Some years, we have only a small amount of fire, but those large fire years where Alaska sees more than 2 million acres burning in a summer have become about twice as common in this century compared to in the previous century.

CHANG: And what kind of resources are even available to fight fires up there? Because, you know, this isn't like California, which has this huge population. There are enormous firefighting crews that get dispatched. That doesn't happen, I guess, in the Arctic so much.

FRESCO: Well, it does and it doesn't. Of course, when fires are threatening people's lives, people's property, we have smoke jumpers, we have fire experts who are on it who are out there day and night trying to protect people. However, unlike California, there are a lot of fires up here that are not fought at all. They're classified as limited suppression. That means they're monitored. They're watched. But until and unless they threaten some known resource, they're allowed to burn across thousands, millions of acres.

CHANG: Wow. So if we are seeing bigger and more frequent fires up in the Arctic, what does that mean for the rest of the world?

FRESCO: Well, it's unfortunately not good news. Here, obviously it affects our health. We're inhaling smoke. It puts people's lives and property at risk. But from the point of view of the rest of the world, it's bad news, too, because all those fires release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. When trees burn and when the soils burn, it adds those gases back to the atmosphere. And, of course, that makes climate change even worse on a global scale.

CHANG: So what would you like to see happen up in the Arctic to deal with this problem? What needs to change up there?

FRESCO: Well, unfortunately, it's not something we can deal with on our own. Here, the best we can do is protect people, fight the fires that have to be fought. But the problem is one that we as an entire planet have to deal with because there's no way to fight all the fires here. There's no way to put them out. There's no way to prevent the release of those greenhouse gases unless we slow down climate change globally.

CHANG: That's Nancy Fresco, a climate scientist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Thank you very much for being with us today.

FRESCO: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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