Alaskan and Canadian wildfires could release trapped greenhouse gases

As I type these words, the Great White North is on fire. Already this season, more than 3 million acres have been scorched in Alaska from 649 separate fires, with over 4,000 fires still ablaze in Canada. Though not yet as extreme as the fire season of 2004, the Alaska Fire Service acknowledges that the trend isn’t promising.

all 649 currently burning fires as of 11 AM EST July 8. Courtesy of Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.

all 649 currently burning fires as of 11 AM EST July 8. Courtesy of Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.

What we typically think of when we hear of wildfires is what happens at the surface: burnt trees, scorched earth, smoke and fire driving all manner of woodland creature into a frantic search for a new home. But beneath the dead trees and smoke-filled sky, an oft-forgotten casualty is slipping away.

The Permafrost, found in the northern regions of North America and the Eurasian landmass, is as the name implies, supposed to be frozen permanently. But the constant heat of these fires is causing it to melt. This frozen ground, often icy for hundreds of thousands to millions of years, traps beneath it the accumulated decay of what came before. Much in the same way that crude oil is made of compressed remains of prehistoric flora and fauna, the detritus beneath the permafrost creates large pockets of methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas 25x more potent than carbon dioxide. When the permafrost melts, the gas is released, which some glass-half-full scientists have termed “the Great Russian Fart” due to the high amounts found beneath the Siberian permafrost in northern Russia.

Globally, permafrost is trapping 1.4 trillion tons of carbon, which is nearly twice as much as is currently in our atmosphere. If the carbon is all released through wildfire, and not efficiently reclaimed by plants that thrive on the limited competition after a wildfire, the speed and magnitude of climate change’s impact on us would increase dramatically.

As with many facets of climate change, permafrost melting is a positive feedback loop: as there are more fires, more gas is released, warming the atmosphere. As the atmosphere warms and dries, fires become more frequent, releasing more gas. It cycles this way until all of the gas is released. That is why it is imperative to take action now, not wait until the situation is dire. If you live in Alaska, Canada, or Russia, please contact your government and let them know how important it is to keep wildfires over permafrost in check:

US Department of Agriculture (oversees Forest Service)

Canadian Ministry of the Environment

Russian Ministry for Civil Defense, Emergencies