Greenland Was on Fire This Week Amid 'Unprecedented' Arctic Burn

By Brian Kahn on at

Two years ago, Greenland lit ablaze. It was weird, and a harbinger of things to come on our changing planet. It just didn’t seem like they would come again so soon.

Satellites spotted another wildfire in western Greenland this week. The blaze first showed up on Wednesday. Though already out and not on the scale of 2017's inferno, this year’s wildfire highlights the increasing risks of fires in high latitudes and comes in a year that’s seeing an “unprecedented” amount of wildfire activity in the Arctic.

The fire lit up near Qeqqata Kommunia on Greenland’s western flank. It appears near a shelter on the Arctic Circle Trail and it’s possible that hikers started the fire unintentionally or otherwise. Fire crews were able to smother the flames according to the Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation. But forecasts from the European Commission’s Global Wildfire Information System shows that the risk of fires remains high to very high over the next week in western Greenland.

“We are experiencing a huge drought,” Karl Jørgen Lennert, a commissioner in the region, told the Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation. “We got up [sic] early spring and the snow melted very quickly. That is why there is drought all over.”

Data shared on Twitter by the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) chief forecaster Jesper Eriksen shows that Kangerlussuaq, the nearest outpost and frequent jumping off point for researchers studying the island’s massive ice sheet, had its warmest May on record. Nearby Aasiaat has also had an extremely dry run of weather since May, further reinforcing that the area is primed to ignite.

Understanding Greenland fire behaviour in a warming world is tough because, well, there simply aren’t that many precedents for wildfires on the island. The windswept chilly conditions coupled with its vast and sparsely-populated expanse means that, according to DMI researchers in the wake of the 2017 fire, “there does not appear to be a reliable long-term record of observed wildfires in Greenland either.”

But climate change is cranking up the heat there and around the Arctic, which is in turn creating hot, dry conditions that make fires increasingly common. Wildfires have roared across Alaska, consuming over 600,000 acres from July 3-10. More 10,000 lightning strikes hit the state between Wednesday and Thursday, almost surely igniting more fires for crews to battle. Siberia and northern Canada have also battled large blazes over the past few months.

The European Union’s Copernicus programme found that June was a period of “unprecedented” wildfire activity for the Arctic.

“In June alone, these fires emitted 50 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is equivalent to Sweden’s total annual emissions,” the agency wrote in a blog post. “This is more than was released by Arctic fires in the same month between 2010 and 2018 put together.”

That means the fires are not only feeling the influence of climate change, they’re contributing to it by emitting more carbon into the atmosphere as trees and stores of peat go up in smoke. And that will accelerate the changes taking place.

Featured photo: Pierre Markuse (Flickr)