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Zombie fires, fire thunderstorms hit Arctic as record heatwave heads into sixth month

By Ben Deacon, Friday June 19, 2020 - 12:16 EST
ABC licensed image
An infrared image shows a wildfire burning north of the Arctic Circle in Russia on June 8. - ABC licensed

Satellite images of northern Russia are showing strong signatures of so-called zombie fires as the region continues to experience record temperatures.

The fires, shown on imagery collected by the European Union's Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS), are burning in areas where blazes broke out last northern summer.

Scientists suspect they continued burning underground during winter and then re-erupted amid the persistent high temperatures of recent months, earning the name 'zombie' or 'overwintering' fires.

Last summer, fires in Russia burnt through more than three million hectares of land.

Dr Mark Parrington, a senior CAMS scientist, said the new fires above the Arctic Circle had been burning more intensely than the long-term average and increasing day by day over the past week.

He said the remoteness of the location means the fires are yet to be confirmed by ground measurements.

"We might actually be missing some of the fire activity which is burning in peat, that could even be burning underground, so it may not be detectable by satellites," Dr Parrington said.

Another phenomenon, fire thunderstorms — otherwise known as pyroCbs — were detected in Siberia and Alaska.

"In the really far northern latitudes this is quite a surprise," Dr Parrington said.

"Events that were once thought to be relatively rare have been observed to be happening a lot more frequently in places of the world where it wasn't thought that these kinds of events could take place."

'Heatwave almost like a heat season'

The fires have flared-up as Arctic Russia moved into its sixth month of record-breaking temperatures.

"This heatwave is almost like a heat season," said Flavio Lehner from Switzerland's Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science.

"For five months in a row there's been very much above-the-normal expected temperatures.

"We're seeing a deviation by up to eight degrees Celsius over a sizable area. So the persistence of this heatwave is actually even more remarkable than the overall anomaly."

The Siberian heatwave drove a new heat record for Russia, with figures from independent environmental data science organisation Berkeley Earth showing the nation 5.3 degrees above average for the first five months of the year.

It is the greatest average temperature anomaly recorded by any country.

The heatwave has been partly blamed for which recently made headlines around the world.

A mining company responsible for the leak said it believed the accident was caused by thawing permafrost which weakened the foundations of a fuel storage tank that ruptured, causing the oil spill.

Warming Arctic a major climate threat

The Arctic has warmed about twice as fast as the rest of the world, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Arctic peatlands expert Dr Meritt Turetsky from the University of Colorado said while fires have been sporadic in the far north in the past, last year large areas of the Arctic burned on multiple continents.

Research from and from the University of Idaho shows that boreal forests and Arctic peatlands store about half the world's soil carbon — more than all the rest of the world's vegetation put together and equal to all the carbon in the atmosphere.

Peat fires burn slowly and may even continue to smoulder under snow for months, eventually breaking out above ground and leading to zombie fires.

"It's very, ," said Paul Adam, a plant geographer from the University of NSW.

He said burning peatlands, alongside melting permafrost, may have grave consequences for Earth's climate.

"The peatlands have more carbon locked up than any other biome on Earth," he said.

"If this carbon oxidises, either slowly through drying out or almost instantaneously once fire gets into the peat, the amount of carbon that could be potentially released into the atmosphere is vast."

Temperatures in Siberia have been forecast to be 14-22 degrees above the 1981-2010 average for at least the next two weeks as the heatwave, which began in January, continues.


© ABC 2020

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