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About those zombie fires

My World's on Fire
About those zombie fires
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #8 • View online

“My world’s on fire” is a free newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. I understand news about disasters can feel a bit overwhelming, but my goal is to help you feel a little bit more at ease about our unpredictable world by equipping you with in-depth reporting and insights. I can only do that with your continued support, so please subscribe and share!
On June 20, Verkhoyansk, a town north of the Arctic Circle, saw temperatures climb above 100 degrees.
It was a new record high for the Arctic, in a small town that, as the New Yorker pointed out, has held record for the coldest inhabited place on earth for over a century.
It’s easy to chalk up that bizarre duality to the “2020 is cursed” meme – but this isn’t an isolated phenomenon.
Last July, Anchorage, Alaska also reached a new high, warming to 90 degrees. Air conditioners sold out; fans were next. It ended up being the state’s hottest and driest summer on record, which was ultimately on par with its other neighbors in the North.
A snapshot from Anchorage, Alaska during the record-breaking 2019 summer heatwave
If you live in a hot, dry area, you might have an idea of what happened next.
“Last summer parts of the Arctic experienced a shorter term heat wave and this event triggered wildfires,” summarized Dr. Merritt Turetsky, Director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado-Boulder, in an email to me earlier this week. “This was followed by a very warm winter and now a return of heat wave conditions this spring and early summer. It is not surprising then that the wildfire season in 2020 started earlier than anticipated and viciously.”
What is surprising, at least to a non-scientist like myself, is that experts believe some of those fires aren’t new – they’re “holdover” or so-called “zombie” fires. What that means, according to Dr. Turetsky, is that fires from 2019 might not have actually extinguished, but rather spent the winter smoldering under the snow in organic material like peat.
So, when the hot summer weather returned, so did the fires.
Dr Thomas Smith 🔥🌏
Are these 'zombie' fires? As the snow melted in Arctic Siberia last week, a number of fires have been detected by satellites. Did these fires smoulder through the winter after widespread #wildfires last summer? [short thread 1/5] 🔥🧟 https://t.co/3jYoHm7a0c
“We don’t know how much of the fires currently being monitored in the Arctic are zombie fires, but they are intriguing because they represent momentum in the system by which one severe fire season can impact the subsequent season,” Dr. Turetsky clarified. An AFP report noted that scientists in Alaska have identified 39 of these “holdover fires” over the past 15 years.
Now, some wildfire activity is actually normal in the Arctic, but the scale of last year’s fires was “unprecedented,” one expert told the BBC, and this year appears to be continuing in that vein. And that should have all us concerned, because Arctic fires have a particularly significant impact, as I’ll let Dr. Turetsky explain from here:
“The changes currently impacting the Arctic will affect everyone on the globe, this year and into the future. For example, the Earth’s typical weather patterns depend on the Arctic being colder than other regions, so when the north is atypically warm, it can cause storms to stall and sit longer over more populated regions of the planet. Smoke from the Arctic fires drift globally and will affect air quality for millions of people. So, it is important that we don’t relegate Arctic change as a problem that needs to be solved solely by northerners or northern governments. This needs to be a global priority. If people around the world talk about climate change, care about the Arctic and its fate, and use their power (votes, money, resources, attention) to sway society, this will make a huge difference.”
Keep reading…
  • More from Dr. Turetsky on the “feverish” Arctic (PBS NewsHour)
  • Still have questions? I found this breakdown of the Arctic heatwave to be very helpful (The Guardian)
  • And if you’re having trouble visualizing it, check out this video (NASA Climate Change)
Don’t forget to look for next week’s new “links” email, and if there’s something you’re reading/watching/listening to in this field, please send it my way! You can find me on your social network of choice (TwitterFacebookInstagram), via email ([email protected]), or in the comments.
Thank you for becoming an early part of this community, and special thanks to all who have shared this newsletter with their networks.
Here’s a little something for reading to the end.
Colleen
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Colleen Hagerty

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