Day 6

'We ain't seen anything yet': Even the Arctic is burning as wildfires rage around the world

From Greece to southern B.C., wildfires blazed around the world this week. In Sweden, fires were even spotted north of the Arctic Circle. Canadian science writer Ed Struzik says Arctic wildfires are on the rise.

'Some of the biggest fires that we've seen worldwide now are occurring in the subarctic,' says science writer

The charred remains of a forest are seen after wildfires blazed through northeast of Ljusdal, central Sweden, on July 26, 2018. (TT News Agency/AFP/Getty Images)

As parts of Arctic Sweden burn, an expert warns that wildfires in polar regions are a growing threat because of climate change.

The nordic country is grappling with wildfires across the region, including several north of the Arctic circle. The fires are among the worst seen in Sweden in decades, with three times as many blazes as a typical July, writes the Local.

The speed with which the fires have spread prompted the government to call on the military, citizen volunteers and neighbouring countries for assistance.

"Some of the biggest fires that we've seen worldwide now are occurring in the subarctic and now even in the high Arctic areas," Ed Struzik, an environmental studies fellow at Queen's University and science writer, told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

A woman reacts as she tries to find her dog following a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece on July 24. (Costas Baltas/Reuters )

Wildfires are devastating areas around the world this year. In Northern Ontario, firefighters are trying to extinguish over a dozen blazes.

In Greece, fire ripped through Mati, a small resort town, killing at least 81 people.

But the Arctic fires are different. Climate change is warming polar regions twice as fast as other parts of the world, said Struzik, leading to more fires that are harder to control.

Boreal forests 'born to burn'

The wildfires that ignited this month in Arctic Sweden aren't unprecedented. Struzik, who authored the 2017 book Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future, says that areas in the subarctic burn each year.

But those fires, and others extending to the high Arctic, have become larger over the last 15 years. As climate change warms these areas, boreal forests, tundra and peatlands are drying up.

Forest fires burn near Ljusdal on July 17. (Maja Suslin/AFP/Getty Images)

Boreal forests, Struzik says, are "born to burn."

Typically, they border tundra and northern landscapes covered in peat moss, which burns differently: instead of flaming upward, the fire smoulders in the ground.

"When it does, it could last the entire summer and then just kind of smoulder — hibernate — for the winter months and then start up again the following year," he said.

The danger of Arctic wildfires became apparent after a blaze on the Anaktuvuk tundra near North Slope, Alaska, in 2007. That fire burned 100,000 square hectares of tundra over three months.

A NASA Earth Observatory satellite image captured on Aug. 3, 2017, shows a wildfire in northern Greenland. (NASA Earth Observatory)

But the most surprising blaze for Struzik was in Greenland last year. About 60 kilometres from the island's ice sheet, it burned for two weeks and consumed 1,200 hectares, according to the Guardian.

"When I first saw the reports that came out from NASA … I thought, this is crazy. That just wasn't on the radar for me and I think that kind of opened up a new chapter in this unfolding story," Struzik said.

"We ain't seen anything yet."

Hard to fight

The impact fires have on climate change is like a domino effect.

Peat moss, when burned, releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gas effects.

Meanwhile, soot covers ice caps and glaciers, darkening their surface.

"Of course, the darker the surface, the more it absorbs the sunlight. That's one reason why the Greenland ice cap is melting so rapidly," Struzik said.

"It's the receptacle for a lot of this black carbon that's burning in the Arctic."

Wildfires are shown burning near Anaktuvuk River in North Slope, Alaska, in 2007. (Alaska Fire Service)

Controlling wildfires in the Arctic is difficult. Not only do firefighters have to contend with remote areas and fast-spreading blazes — like those in Sweden — the way peat moss burns creates a unique challenge.

"The water, or the retardants, have to go deep into the ground to quash the fire. And that's an awful lot of water," he said.

"You could probably send the entire U.S. military up there with all the available bombers, but you really wouldn't be able to put out all of these fires."

Dry weather has endangered large tracts of forest and many residential areas near Ljusdal. (Maja Suslin/Lehtikuva via AP)

Canada is no exception to Arctic wildfire threats.

After a 2004 fire in Yukon scorched six per cent of the territory, there's been a "remarkable acceleration" of fires in northern Canada, said Struzik.

While he believes that areas on the Arctic archipelago are safe for the time being, anything to the south — including Indigenous communities and cities like Yellowknife and Whitehorse — is at risk.

They are "really struggling to come to grips with this," Struzik said.

"Everybody's house abuts the boreal forest."

To hear the full interview with Ed Struzik, download our podcast or click the "Listen' button at the top of this page.