Global warming drives record increase in megafires across the Arctic: Report

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Global warming is currently driving a huge increase in megafires across the Arctic, a new report warned.

The Siberian Arctic experienced an unusual number of fires throughout 2019 and 2020. In 2020 alone, fires destroyed an area almost as large as Belgium, with recent fire rates in the Siberian arctic exceeding those of the past four decades.

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The number of forest fires was seven times higher than the average since 1982, the study conducted by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) found, raising concerns within the scientific community as the Arctic has large areas of permafrost – a permanently frozen layer of subsoil that accumulates large amounts of carbon.

The authors concluded that while the areas burned in 2019 and 2020 could be “exceptional events,” recent temperature trends and projected scenarios suggest that by the end of the 21st century, “large fires such as those of 2019 and 2020 will be frequent if temperatures continue to increase at the current rate.”

“In 2020 alone… 423 fires were detected in the Siberian Arctic, which burned around 3 million hectares (an area almost as big as the whole Belgium) and caused the emission of 256 million tons of CO2 equivalent,” said one of the study’s authors Adria Descals in a statement.

The 256 million tons of CO2 that were released are similar to the annual of emissions in Spain.

Descals added that “with future warming, these megafires will be recurrent at the end of the century and will have different implications, both for the Arctic and for the global climate.”

“Temperatures are reaching a critical threshold where small increases above the summer average of 10 °C can exponentially increase the area burned and the associated emissions,” explained study co-author and CSIC scientist Josep Peñuelas.

“The 2020 average summer temperature – which was 11.35 degrees – will be very common from the second half of the century on if the Arctic warming continues at the same rate,” the researchers added.

“These temperature anomalies increase fire risk factors, so the conditions that were led to the 2019 and 2020 fires will be recurrent in the Arctic by the end of the century.”

One other key consequence of these rising temperatures is an increase in storms and lightning – both of which have been quite rare in the Arctic region until now.

“We detected fires above the 72nd parallel north, more than 600 km north of the Arctic Circle, where fires are unusual and where winter ice was still visible at the time of burning,” Descals said.

“Many fires were detected with a few days of difference, so we hypothesize that increases in thunderstorms and lightning are the main cause of the fires, although further investigations would be required to demonstrate how much human activities may influence the fire season in this remote region.

Climate warming therefore has a double effect on fire risk: it increases the susceptibility of vegetation and peatlands to fire and, on the other hand, it increases the number of ignitions caused by thunderstorms.”

The study, published in the journal Science, comes as the highly anticipated COP27 UN climate conference kicks off in Egypt's coastal town Sharm el-Sheikh. The summit kicked off on Sunday and is set to run until November 18, bringing together high-level experts, government officials, heads of state and key decision makers from over 190 countries to address the threats posed by climate change.

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