Wildfires as of 6/23/15, via Alaska Division of Forestry
Wildfires in Alaska rarely make the national news, but this year’s season is off to a particularly dramatic start, with the Alaska Division of Forestry reporting that as of Wednesday there are 278 wildfires burning in the state. And while the land area covered by these fires is not especially large, it is part of a trend of increasing fires that burn not only woodland, but threaten to burn soil and permafrost, triggering large releases of carbon into the atmosphere.
A recent report by Climate Central highlights just how extreme warming is in our northernmost state: “In the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the country, with average temperatures up by nearly 3°F.” And by 2050 it is expected to warm by an additional 4°F. During this time the area of land hit by wildfires has more than doubled in each decade since 1980, with seasons that are 40 percent longer than they were in the 1950s.
In the immediate term, this places substantial stress on local resources. As the Washington Post reports, preparedness levels in the state are at a 5, meaning “resistance to control is high to extreme and resistance to extinguishment is high,” with the Department of Natural Resources stating the “state’s firefighting resources are becoming very limited.”
Which is alarming enough on its own, but the presence of fires in areas of permafrost may also trigger sizable releases of carbon, which could further accelerate global warming. The dense soil contains massive amounts of dead plant material that stores an awful lot of carbon, while the carbon stores of the Arctic permafrost are estimated to be double that of the amount in the world’s atmosphere at present. The Post’s article notes a 2007 wildfire on the Anaktuvuk River consumed 1,039 square kilometers and was estimated to have released 2.1 million metric tons of C02 into the atmosphere.
All of which means, we’re all likely to be paying a lot more attention to Alaska’s wildfires in the future.
Lead image via Shutterstock