SOURCE: Inside Climate News
DATE: July 11, 2019
SNIP: Under the choking black smoke from the bog and forest fires in Siberia and Alaska, it can feel like the Earth itself is burning. The normally moist, black organic peat soil and lush forests have been drying, and when they catch fire, they burn relentlessly.
Global warming has been thawing tundra and drying vast stretches of the far-northern boreal forests, and it also has spurred more thunderstorms with lightning, which triggered many of the fires burning in Alaska this year, said Brian Brettschneider, a climate scientist with the International Arctic Research Center who closely tracks Alaskan and Arctic extreme weather.
So far this year, wildfires have scorched more than 1.2 million acres in Alaska, making it one of the state’s three biggest fire years on record to this date, with high fire danger expected to persist in the weeks ahead.
The large Arctic fires in June could be a sign of a climate tipping point, said Thomas Smith, a climate researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“It really is unprecedented, a word we should not use lightly,” he wrote. “It may be that in most previous years, temperatures have never been warm enough to drive off moisture from the winter frost and snowpack. The ground is likely covered in mosses that act as a sponge, staying moist all summer long before freezing again in winter. But now that sponge is drying out.”
Amid all of this, scientists in Alaska are worried about the future of scientific research at the region’s universities—the state legislature is struggling to get enough votes by Friday to override a veto by the Republican governor that would effectively slash state funding for the university system by 41 percent.
It’s not only land areas that are heating up. The ocean around Alaska has also been running a fever for months, and it’s all connected.
Summer ocean heat waves contribute land heat waves; in the fall, warmer ocean and land temperatures delay the freeze-up of ice near the shore, which leads to even more heat buildup in the ocean, part of the death spiral of the Arctic climate system as we know it, now headed toward an uncertain future, according to scientists.
The changes in ocean temperatures and sea ice extent likely represent a climate shift for Alaska, said Rick Thoman, with the International Arctic Research Center.
“But there’s no reason to think that we’re at a new equilibrium,” he said. He likens it to a five-year-old on an escalator: “The climate will likely feature big swings all the while trending up. Sure, the 5-year can run up or down and so get to the top faster or slower, but in the end the escalator ‘wins.’”