The Arctic is burning – or not


Someone at some point in the last few weeks seemed to have managed to put the idea into the mind of journalists that there are wildfires burning in the Arctic and this being a exceptionally newsworthy story somehow. These reports are so full of lack of background knowledge and made up nonsense and exaggeration that they are a feeding frenzy for all the climate change deniers out there so i thought it would be a good idea to clear things up a bit. Here a few factual points on the matter.

The Arctic is commonly defined as the area north of the climatic tree line. Roughly that is the area from some short distance south of the Arctic ocean coast northwards in Siberia, Alaska and Canada plus Greenland, the Bering Strait, the Aleutian Islands and Hudson Bay. You can see this approximately illustrated here. The Arctic Circle is sometimes considered an approximate geometric limit for the Arctic with the actual tree growth limit being somewhat further south in parts of North America and somewhat further north in Siberia. There are only few wildfires burning at this time of year (June to early July) – both this year and in previous years – in the Arctic. In June to early July snow melt is either in progress or has just finished in most of the Arctic, the ground is still wet even at the surface therefore and fires are rare.

Forest Fires Siberia 2019-07-04

The fires the current fuzz is about are forest fires in the boreal forest. Such forest fires happen every year in significant numbers and are in principle a natural occurrence. This year they have started relatively early due to widespread warm and dry weather in June in particular in Alaska and parts of Siberia.

Forest Fires Canada 2018-08-15

Forest Fires Siberia 2018-07-03

But generally speaking there is no clear indication that there is something exceptional about the boreal forest fires this year in their overall extent compared to previous years. In particular last year there were very extensive forest fires in Canada and we also had significant fire activity in early July already. Ultimately this can of course only be assessed after the end of summer.

If there is a general increase in forest fire activity during the last decades due to climate change is a question that surely deserves a closer look. But this is nothing you can determine from observations of one or two years. Also trying to count individual fires through remote sensing is not a suitable instrument here. And if there is a long term increase the real question regarding climate would ultimately be if and how this affects the carbon balance of the boreal forest as a whole. That is not a trivial question.

The most likely explanation for the fuzz in the media is that there is a larger number of researchers trying to push sensationalist messages about extraordinary observations to generate publicity for their work. And they find willing allies in journalists desperately looking for clickbait material. This is not very responsible. The lack of thoroughness in analysis of the observations and leaving out the broader context plays directly into the hands of those who want to discredit climate research as flawed and non-credible.

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