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Russian wildfires send black carbon plumes across North Pole

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Smoke from Russian wildfires this summer reached all the way across the North Pole to hit Greenland and Canada, according to new satellite data.

Carbon emissions from global wildfires have set a record high for August this year, after extensive blazes in Russia’s Far East, as well as California and Canada, pushed past the previous highest level for the month.

Siberian wildfires fuel record carbon emissions for August. Chart showing Total wildfire emissions (million tonnes of carbon) Huge fires in the Sakha Republic in Siberia push the global total to its highest level since records began in 2003

Wildfires pump out black carbon, carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases and particles, resulting in smoke plumes that can stretch for thousands of miles from the biggest fires.

Blazes in California and Western Canada emitted smoke that reached as far as Europe, while the plume from Eastern Russia circled the Arctic, according to satellite data from Copernicus, the European earth observation programme.

Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at Copernicus, said the August record for wildfire carbon emissions in 2021 — a measure that includes both carbon dioxide and black carbon — was partly due to the persistent blazes in Russia’s Far East.

“The majority of the observed fire locations across the Sakha Republic correspond with dry anomalies in soil moisture,” he added.

Warm temperatures and dry soil contribute to wildfires. Maps showing Surface air temperature anomalies for August (C) and 0-7cm soil moisture anomalies for June-August (C)

Black carbon emitted by fires also has a particularly damaging impact on the Arctic environment, where it can darken snow and ice, causing it to melt faster. 

The presence of black carbon is one factor behind the heating of the Arctic, which is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet.

As snow and ice melts, it exposes rock or ocean underneath it, and the dark surfaces heat up faster, creating a cycle of warming.

“It is one of the more important Arctic feedback loops,” said Thomas Smith, associate professor in environmental geography at the London School of Economics.

While the movement of black carbon in the atmosphere is visible to satellites, scientists cannot measure exactly where the soot gets deposited. 

Parrington said that the black carbon from the Russian fires was quite high in the atmosphere, and it may not have been deposited over the Arctic Ocean. “The potential for deposition seemed to be closer to the coast and over the Laptev-Chukchi Seas.” 

As the Arctic warms, fire is becoming a much greater risk for regions such as Russia’s Sakha Republic, which lies partly inside the Arctic Circle.

“We know that climate change is playing a very important role there, increasing the frequency of the fires, the size of the fires, and the intensity,” said LSE’s Smith.

While many forest fires are considered to be climate-neutral — because the trees grow back over time, reabsorbing CO2 from the air — this is not the case in areas where the forest does not return. 

“One problem is that if the fires come more frequently, then the forest is never going to regenerate,” added Smith.

Jason Box, professor of glaciology at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, who has extensively studied black carbon on glaciers, said that it was part of a cycle of warming impacts.

“The Arctic climate is full of amplifiers like this — from increasing humidity, reduced reflective snow cover, increased heat input into the atmosphere from a more exposed ocean surface,” he said.

“The extra black carbon emitted from the increasing high-latitude wildfires is fundamentally one of those amplifiers that increase the pre-existing warming effect from elevated carbon dioxide.”

Climate Capital

Russian wildfires send black carbon plumes across North Pole

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