• Jennifer Depew

Alaska permafrost is melting, increasing wildfire risk and greenhouse gases.

The Arctic Circle and northern parts of Canada, Alaska, and the European continent have a topsoil layer that generally never thaws except for a few months of the year in summertime, hence the name permafrost. It is melting more than typical in the warmer temperatures that have occurred with climate change. (1) The increase of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases collecting in the atmosphere traps more warmth from sunshine and increases temperatures more around the North and South Poles than around the Equator.

When permafrost melts the stored carbon decomposes and releases stored carbon dioxide and methane into the air. This adds to the greenhouse gases in the air and warms the average temperature even more, accelerating the melting and decomposing even more. Drier and hotter conditions also increase risk of wildfires which release carbon dioxide and other volatile chemicals from burnt vegetation and peat. (1)

Tundra is a another name for the interesting ground cover of northern climates and during the summer tundra is springy to walk on, like a floating peat bog. Peat moss, or sphagnum, is why tundra is springy to walk on - like being in a giant bounce house in the great outdoors. There are few tall plants or trees in the far north. Shrubs like blueberry bushes might be found though.

The peat moss is considered a 'carbon sink' it stores carbon dioxide from the air and helps slow down global warming trends while it is growing. (2) If wildfires burn the peat moss though, the stored carbon dioxide will be suddenly released. The released carbon dioxide would then suddenly be adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and add to the increase in average global temperature.

Peat refers to the type of soil which the peat moss grows. Peat moss and peat bogs are found in forest areas also, farther south from the tree-less tundra. Peat soil can be several feet deep and the soil itself is rich in carbon dioxide and can smolder for months deep enough underground that rain or other types of firefighting methods don't extinguish the fire. Peat fires can even continue smoldering through winter months. Peat fires create small amounts of visible flame and excessive amounts of smoke compared to other types of forest fires. The smoke can cause health risks from the ash and other pollutants that are released in addition to the carbon dioxide. (3)

Preventing fires in tundra or forests farther south where peat also grows (called boreal forests) can help reduce the risk of increasing greenhouse gases by protecting the carbon sink effect of peat and peat moss and by decreasing the release of the stored carbon. Managing fire risk also helps prevent further drying effects on the environment which can also increase risk of wildfires in surrounding areas. (1) Alaska has more wilderness and fewer populated areas than areas farther south so fire prevention teams would have more acreage to protect with less equipment available.

Increasing resources to help Alaska, Canada, and Siberia prevent forest fires would be good for the planet in addition to protecting the Amazon rainforest which produces about twenty percent of the oxygen in our atmosphere. (4)


Remains of pine trees after wildfires in northern California.

References

  1. Carly Phillips, How Alaska's Recent Heat Wave May Worsen Climate Warming, July 11, 2019, uscusa.org, https://blog.ucsusa.org/carly-phillips/how-alaskas-recent-heat-wave-may-worsen-climate-warming

  2. Lehigh University, Peat expansion in the Arctic tundra could play a role in cooling a warming planet. Aug. 29, 2018, phys.org, https://phys.org/news/2018-08-peat-expansion-arctic-tundra-role.html

  3. XiaoZhi LimThese Fires are Huge, Hidden and Harmful. What Can We Do?, June 28, 2016, ensia.com, https://ensia.com/features/underground-fires-huge-harmful-hidden/

  4. Facts and Information on the Rainforest, rain-tree.com, http://www.rain-tree.com/facts.htm

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