Satellite Images Show the Arctic's Fiery Unraveling

arctic on fire

 Wildfire in the Sakha Republic, within the Arctic Circle, Russia on June 8, 2020.Image: Pierre (Flickr)

Even by the Arctic’s increasing erratic standards, it’s been a weird spring and summer in Siberia. The region of the world that’s considered a bastion of frigid temperatures and frozen landscapes is buckling under the intense pressure of the climate crisis.

Through the first five months of the year, Siberia has been a bright red smudge on global temperature maps. Temperatures there have averaged 12.4 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees Celsius) above normal since January. It hit 86 degrees (30 degrees Celsius) above the Arctic Circle in May (May!). The blistering heat also led to the winter that wasn’t and caused an oil spill threatening an Arctic lake that was likely caused by thawing permafrost soil. If the list of maladies stopped there, it’d be bad enough.

But because this is 2020, they do not. The most staggering change of all in Siberia is the increasingly fire-dotted landscape. The heat that has engulfed Eurasia has led to major fires across Siberia (to say nothing of the Ukraine and fires within the Chernobyl exclusion zone this spring). Flames have even spread into the Arctic where fires have burned largely uncontained.

 The remoteness means that satellites are the best way to capture the unfolding chaos. The same remoteness means the fires are unlikely to threaten towns like those typically seen in the western U.S. But they do pose a major concern to the climate, particularly the so-called “zombie” fires that have sprung back up. Those fires tend also burn in underground peat reserves that are rich in carbon and can amplify climate change by releasing it into the atmosphere.