After a 10,000-year absence, wildfires have returned to the Arctic tundra, and new findings raise concerns the fires could accelerate the release of carbon into the atmosphere. Scientists quantified the amount of soil-bound carbon released into the atmosphere in the 2007 Anaktuvuk River fire, which covered more than 400 square miles on the North Slope of Alaska’s Brooks Range.
Pictured above is the North Slope of Alaska and the Anaktuvuk River fire scar in 2007 as seen from space in a MODIS satellite image. The 2.1 million metric tons of carbon released in the fire—roughly twice the amount of greenhouse gases put out by the city of Miami in a year—is significant enough to suggest that Arctic fires could impact the global climate.
“The 2007 fire was the canary in the coal mine,” says Michelle Mack, an associate professor of ecosystem ecology at the University of Florida. “In this wilderness, hundreds of miles away from the nearest city or source of pollution, we’re seeing the effects of a warming atmosphere. It’s a wake-up call that the Arctic carbon cycle could change rapidly, and we need to know what the consequences will be.”
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(Photo credit: NASA/GSFC Rapid Response Unit; Alaska Fire Service; Michelle Mack, University of Florida)