'Zombie fires' a growing risk in the warming Arctic
Thawing permafrost and drying peatlands are expected to provide more fuel for these fires.
(Photo credit: Pierre Markuse / Wikimedia)
During warm months, wildfires can burn across Arctic tundra. When fall arrives, cooler, wetter weather usually helps extinguish the fires. But some only appear to be gone. Despite the blanket of winter snow, they reemerge in spring – returning to life like zombies.
Jessica McCarty is director of the Geospatial Analysis Center at Miami University in Ohio.
She says a zombie fire can occur when wildfire burns in peatlands, areas that are covered with a carbon-rich layer of dead plants. The fire gets so hot that it burrows down into the peat and moves underground, even after the surface fire is extinguished.
“So that when spring melt occurs, it dries out the soil above it and allows the fire to reemerge on the surface,” McCarty says.
She says zombie fires are a growing risk as the climate warms.
“As permafrost thaws, as more Arctic peatland dries out … there’ll just be more fuel for them to burn,” McCarty says. “So the likelihood of them does increase for that reason.”
These fires are hard to find and monitor in the Arctic because of harsh winter weather. So, like their namesake, zombie fires are difficult to kill.