Arctic wildfires emit 35% more CO2 so far in 2020 than for whole of 2019

"This is fine."

Smith also warned that some fires were destroying ancient peat bogs containing carbon that has accumulated over thousands of years, a process similar to fossil fuel burning.

Analysis performed by Smith, covering May and June of this year, suggested that about 50% of the fires in the Arctic Circle were burning on peat soils, with the vast majority of the fire activity occurring in eastern Siberia. [...]

In June, Russia's aerial forest protection service reported that 3.4m acres of Siberian forest were burning in areas unreachable to firefighters. Last summer, the Arctic fires were so intense that they created a cloud of smoke and soot bigger than the EU landmass.

The Bizarre, Peaty Science of Arctic Wildfires

[Peat is] made from slowly decomposing organic matter, like moss, that gradually builds up into a layer perhaps several meters thick. Given enough time and enough pressure, it will eventually harden into the undisputed heavyweight champion of carbon emissions: coal. [...]

When peat is wet, it's up to 95 percent water, but as it dries it condenses, turning into one of the most flammable substances in nature. "Drier and denser are the double whammy," says Waddington. "If those types of peatlands were to ignite, you can burn well over 1,000 years of carbon accumulation in one single fire." For every hectare, you might lose 200 tons of carbon into the atmosphere. The typical car emits 5 tons in a year.

And when dried peat burns, it burns in a super weird way. [...] When peat catches fire, say after a lightning strike at the surface, it smolders like a lit cigarette, gradually burning deeper and deeper into the ground and moving laterally across the ecosystem, carving enormous holes in the soil. "I've seen smoldering holes where I go inside and I disappear from the horizon," says Rein.

This three-dimensional fire continues for perhaps months at a time, gnawing both downward and sideways through carbon-rich material. "It's the combination of these two phenomena that leads to massive carbon emissions, massive damage to the ecosystem, massive damage to the soil and the root systems," Rein says. "You have to go to a different planet to find a more persistent type of fire."

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6 Responses:

  1. Andreas says:

    I’m obviously taking the entirely wrong thing away from this, but: does that mean if we get peat even denser, we can make a peat bog bomb?

  2. Thomas Lord says:

    Combining the two anecdata points (sorry if I make an embarrassing arithmetic mistake):

    3.5 million acres burning in Siberia alone is 1.4 million hectare according to google's handy dandy units converter.

    200 tons carbon per hectare times 1.4 million hectare is 280 million tons. That's equivalent to around .7 percent of directly human-caused emissions (fossil fuel burning and land use conversion) in 2018 and 2019.

    Some of that .7% was presumably already present as background but I would assume very little (why do they call it perma frost?).

    So, nature is giving (let's guess) at least a 1/2 percentage point bump in recent history emissions via a feedback effect on human emissions. Just from the fires in Siberia alone.

    That's not yet a clear run-away effect, taken on its own, but it sure ain't good.

    It's a bit late for anything like a GND that in the best case won't even do much of anything over the next couple of years --- and that (recent studies are showing more and more) would actually make things worse at this stage.

    GDP degrowth is the only known effective path towards actual aggregate emissions reductions on the scale we need NOW. The emergency shutdowns from the pandemic dropped global emissions by an estimated 17% in April 2020. That's a good start!

  3. JohnD says:

    These parts I find interesting:
    This three-dimensional fire continues for perhaps months at a time
    You have to go to a different planet to find a more persistent type of fire.

    Apparently the author hasn't heard of coal mine fires:

    • Nick Lamb says:

      Some places (used to?) deliberately burn peat as a way to make energy. In fact I think one of those places was Northern Ireland, which also had a political scandal "Cash for Ash" - because it "accidentally" compensated certain people more than the cost of their fuel so that you'd make a profit by burning as much as possible even if you had no need for the heat.

      But yeah, Centralia is a thing, and I believe some places have coal seams that naturally caught fire even without any human mining activity.

      • thielges says:

        Some traditional Scotch whiskey distilleries still burn peat for the drying phase of the malting process. It imparts a distinctive taste. You can buy peat smoked malt at local home brewing stores. A little goes a long way.

  4. art says:

    if it's any comfort, i made a map of active california fires, updated daily, but instead of the conventional flame icon it uses the "this is fine" dog.

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