In an unusual event, satellites have detected a sizable wildfire burning in Greenland. The fire is in western Greenland, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) northeast of Sisimiut. Most of Greenland is covered by ice, but dwarf willows, shrubs, grasses, mosses, and other vegetation do live in some coastal areas.
While it is not unprecedented for satellites to observe fire activity in Greenland, a preliminary analysis shared by Stef Lhermitte of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands suggests that MODIS has detected far more fire activity in Greenland in 2017 than it did during any other year since the sensor began collecting data in 2000. The fire appears to be burning through peat, noted Miami University scientist Jessica McCarty.
It is not clear what triggered the fire. Sisimiut, the second largest town in Greenland, has a population of 5,500 people.
NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Caption by Adam Voiland.
Se billeder: Naturbrand udvikler kraftig rog
En pilot har taget billeder af naturbranden lidt nord for Nassuttooq
04 August 2017
Piloten Per Mikkelsen floj torsdag fra Kangerlussuaq til Aasiaat med deres lille privatfly fra Sondy Aero Club. Pa turen op blev der observeret en naturbrand lidt nord for Nassuttooq.
– Pa turen tilbage omkring klokken 19.00 kunne vi se at naturbranden havde udviklet sig meget og der var tyk af rog op til 6000 fods hojde, skriver han til Sermitsiaq.AG. Med en nordost-ostlig vind kunne Per Mikkelsen se at rogen lagde sig helt ud mod kysten i et tykt lag.
Photos by Per Mikkelsen
Un rare incendie au Groenland
07 August 2017
Un satellite europeen a devoile un exceptionnel et inattendu incendie de vegetation a l’ouest du Groenland.
Un exceptionnel incendie de vegetation touche le Groenland debut aout, visible sur cette image retraitee par Pierre Markuse, un internaute allemand. / Pierre Markuse / Copernicus.
Le sud de l’Europe n’est pas le seul touche par des incendies cet ete. Certaines zones du monde pour le moins inattendues sont aussi soumises aux flammes, comme le Groenland. Le 3 aout dernier, le satellite europeen Sentinel 2-B a enregistre un incendie dans le pays des glaces.
Le feu de vegetation, dont l’origine n’est toujours pas connue, s’est declare dans le centre-ouest de l’ile, au-dela du cercle polaire. Deja fin juillet, des passagers d’un avion avaient signale des fumees qui touchaient la ville de Sisimiut, situee au sud de l’incendie.
Ainsi, au Canada, 187 incendies ont ete reportes depuis le debut de l’annee rien que dans les territoires du nord-ouest. Mais tous ces incendies ont lieu dans les zones continentales et vertes. Au contraire, au Groenland, la zone incendiee est proche de la mer, traditionnellement neigeuse et se situe a une latitude legerement plus elevee.
L’EFFIS confirme qu’il s’agit d’un phenomene rare, aucun precedent de ce type n’a ete enregistre par l’organisme auparavant. Les medias locaux avaient deja rapporte des incendies lors des etes 2016 et 2015 mais dans des regions des centaines de kilometres bien plus au sud.
Selon la radio locale du Groenland, le feu aurait devaste une quinzaine de kilometres carres de toundra et de prairies. Les fumees s’etendent sur plusieurs dizaines de kilometres dans cette region inhabitee. Ce week-end, l’incendie etait toujours en cours. La circulation, la randonnee et la chasse ont ete interdites dans les zones concernees.
L’image prise par le satellite a ete reperee par Pierre Markuse, un internaute allemand qui l’a retraitee pour faire ressortir l’incendie. Sentinel-2 est opere par Copernicus, le programme europeen de surveillance de la Terre, dont toutes les donnees sont en acces libre. Parmi ses missions, Copernicus gere EFFIS, le systeme europeen d’information sur les feux de forets, qui fournit des donnees cartographiques pour la gestion des catastrophes.
Largest ever wildfire in Greenland seen burning from space
8 August 2017
By Michael Le Page
Smoke from the Greenland fire seen in satellite images (Copernicus Sentinel – ESA)
The largest wildfire ever detected by satellites in the mostly ice-covered country of Greenland continues to spread. Local authorities are said to be considering ways to halt the blaze, but it is not clear whether they have the necessary resources.
“It certainly is the biggest one in the satellite record,” says remote-sensing scientist Stef Lhermitte of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. That record only goes back to 2000, but it could well turn out to be the biggest wildfire in Greenland’s history.
The fire, first spotted by a pilot on 31 July, has taken researchers like Lhermitte by surprise. His initial analysis of satellite observations suggests there have been a few small wildfires in Greenland since 2000 but that over the past three years there has been a huge increase in the area burning.
Based on the fact that the fire is spreading slowly and on the colour of the smoke, Jessica McCarty of Miami University thinks that what is burning is not just the sparse surface vegetation but the peat underneath.
According to local news reports there are fears that with no rainfall expected the fire could keep burning for a long time to come. The smoke is preventing hunting in the area and also destroying the grazing for reindeer – a serious problem for subsistence hunters in the area.
In a region better known for its ice and snow, it’s a fire that now has scientists struggling to learn more. Since at least the end of last month, a stretch of land in western Greenland has been alight with a “sizable wildfire,” NASA says.
The agency’s European counterpart, the ESA, was a little more emotive in a recent tweet sharing imagery from one of its satellites: “This Sentinel-2 image of Greenland shows [a] massive forest fire,” the ESA tweeted. “Yes it is Greenland.”
The fire is burning roughly 90 miles northeast of Sisimiut, a town of about 5,500 that rests on the island’s west coast, according to NASA. Citing local reports, the publication Climate Central reports the fire observed by the agency consists of a series of blazes – the largest of which is about 3,000 acres.
“These fires appear to be peatland fires, as there are low grass, some shrub, and lots of rocks on the western edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet,” Jessica L. McCarty of Miami University told Wildfire Today.
As The New York Times has pointed out, peat is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change – drying out as temperatures rise – and especially dangerous for exacerbating climate change if it burns.
“It’s carbon that has accumulated over several thousands of years,” one researcher told the paper last year. “If it were to be released, the global CO2 concentration would be much higher.”
NASA notes the fire, while not unprecedented in Greenland, still makes for an “unusual event” on an island mostly covered by ice. The agency points to an analysis pulled together by Lhermitte, who demonstrates that NASA satellites have detected an “exceptional” number of wildfires in 2017.
Smouldering fires in Greenland are believed to be burning peat. Source: Deimos Imaging, an UrtheCast Company
New images have been released of wildfires that continue to burn close to the Greenland ice sheet, on the country’s west coast.
Fires are rare on an island where 80% of the land is covered by ice up to 3km thick in places.
However, satellites have observed smoke and flames north-east of a town called Sisimiut since 31 July.
Experts believe at least two fires are burning in peat that may have dried out as temperatures have risen.
A song of fire and ice?
Researchers say that across Greenland there is now less surface water than in the past, which could be making vegetation more susceptible to fire.
The latest satellite images show a number of plumes. Police have warned hikers and tourists to stay away from the region because of the dangers posed by smoke. There are also concerns that the fire will damage grazing for reindeer.
Scientists believe that instead of shrubs or mosses, the likely source is fire in the peaty soil, which can only burn when dry.
“Usually when a wildfire is smouldering like that it’s because there’s a lot of ground-level fuel, carbon organic matter; that’s why I assume that it’s peat,” wildfire expert Prof Jessica McCarty from Miami University, US, told BBC News.
“The fire line is not moving, the fire is not progressing like we’d see in a forest fire, so that means it’s burning whatever fuel is on the ground.”
Prof McCarthy believes that melting permafrost is likely to have contributed to this outbreak. She referred to studies carried out in the region that showed degraded permafrost around the town of Sisimiut.
Locals say that what they call “soil fires” have happened before, especially in the last 20-30 years.
Researchers have been busily examining the satellite record to look for evidence of previous outbreaks.
“The only record I found is the MODIS active fire record. It’s a satellite that measures the temperature of the surface and can locate hotspots from fire,” said Dr Stef Lhermitte from Delft University in the Netherlands.
“I think that fires have been there before but what’s different is that this fire is big, in Greenlandic terms; that is unusual. It’s the biggest one we have in the satellite record.”
Dr Lhermitte’s analysis suggest that the satellite has detected more fires in 2017 alone in Greenland than in the 15 years it has been operating. A previous large outbreak was seen in 2015.
Image copyright ECMWF Image caption Emissions of CO2 following fires in Greenland show a big spike this year
One key question about these fires is the influence of a changing climate.
“This peat is less than 70km from the ice sheet. It’s a little difficult to believe that it would be degraded already without increasing melting and higher temperatures,” said Prof McCarty.
“But as a scientist we can’t say it’s definitely climate change until we’ve done the analysis after the fire.”
Peat fires worry researchers because the material stores large amounts of CO2 that is released through burning. They are also worried that the “black carbon” soot arising from the fires could land on the ice sheet and cause further melting.
Some rain is expected tomorrow which researchers hope will put the fire out.
Prof McCarty added: “I work a lot in this field and no-one has ever thought of doing a fire study in Greenland, I can tell you!”
Scientists around the world have been using satellites to monitor a wildfire in Greenland. In a place better known for ice, just how unusual is this fire? NASA Earth Observatory checked with remote sensing experts Ruth Mottram,Jessica McCarty, and Stef Lhermitte to find out. Mottram is a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute; Lhermitte is geoscientist at Delft University of Technology; and McCarty is a geographer at Miami University.
How unusual is this fire?
Mottram: Many of my colleagues at the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) were a bit surprised at first, but it was clear talking to both the Greenland weather forecasters (they do three month rotations to the airport at Kangerlussuaq) and to some of the older guys that fires do happen reasonably regularly, particularly in the west and south. However, they are not always reported either officially or in the news unless the fire is close to a settlement or affecting shipping or flights. This fire seems to be a fairly large one, but there has been no systematic attempt to gather evidence or data on Greenland’s fires – at least not at DMI. I have never heard of anyone else in Denmark doing it either, so it is a bit hard to be more precise than that.
McCarty: This is a hard question to answer, and I keep telling media reporters the same thing: we need to have the wildfire history analyzed before we know how unusual this is. I can tell you from the global wildfire science community that I am a part of, we would have never thought the we would need to make a wildfire history to understand the fire regime in Greenland. So that part is unusual.
Lhermitte: I completely agree with Jessica. I used to be a wildfire remote sensing scientist (finished my PhD on African wildfires in 2008), but I have shifted since then to the cryosphere community (including some work on Greenland’s ice). It was a big surprise to me to see both worlds combined on Monday when I first noticed a Greenland fire tweet. Now it is clear that fires have occurred before, but that we basically lack a good record. MODIS gives us a glimpse, but the sensor certainly is not perfect, and the record is short. Based on what I have seen, the 2017 fire is the biggest one on the MODIS record, but the record is sparse and incomplete.
I know you have done some looking through MODIS and Landsat satellite data for evidence of past fires in Greenland. What have you found?
Lhermitte: I looked back at the record of MODIS active fire detections since 2002 and made a quick overview map. In the map below, fire detections are marked with circles. Higher confidence fires are red; lower confidence fires are yellow. In most years, the satellite flags about 5 pixels as having active fires. In 2000, it flagged about 20 pixels. There were over 40 pixels flagged in 2017, so this year has been exceptional. Note: Most of these detections are probably campfires – not uncontrolled wildfires. There have been two big wildfires: the one happening now and one in August of 2015.
McCarty: Overall, 2017 appears to be a larger fire season than any year since 2001. But from a remote sensing point of view, this is a difficult place to study the fire regime using satellite-based active fire detections (because of cloudiness and other factors). The Landsat/Sentinel-2/Deimos, etc. burn scar images will be more helpful.
Mottram: I have not looked into any of the specific data, but I have heard anecdotes about fires in Narsarsuaq close to the DMI ice service reconnaissance station in the south of Greenland, in the Kobbefjord close to Nuuk, and just to the north of Sisimiut near this one. There was also a large fire in 2008 near Eqi, close to Ilulissat, which the Greenland press reported was caused by a tourist burning rubbish but failing to put the fire out.
One of you said on social media that you think the fire may be burning through peat. Are you sure? How can you tell?
McCarty: The fire line has not moved much in comparison to a wildfire in a grassland or forest. However, Stef made an awesome Sentinel-2 animation that shows the fire line moving some. I still think it is peat with a mix of grasses and moss (given the Google Earth Pro and Deimos imagery), but how deep the peat is difficult to ascertain. A recent study in the Qaanaaq region (north of where these wildfires are) found five times more peat in the soil distribution and soil content than previously reported. Also, historically, peat houses were constructed in this area of Greenland, which means there are peat deposits nearby. Short grasses with underlying peat is my working hypothesis for now since we are onto day 11 of the fire.
Mottram: I am not really a soils expert, and Greenland really suffers from having little detailed mapping of this kind. Also, Greenland is pretty diverse from north to south and east to west. There are high rocky mountains and permafrost. The south has sheep pasture and even some areas of forest; the north has large areas with low vegetation cover. However, there are also extensive areas of peat cite in the scientific literature.
Do you think this fire was triggered by human activity or lightning? Do we know what triggers most fires in Greenland?
McCarty: I still can’t find any indication that this was lightning, so it must be human activity. Greenlandic/Danish news reports are reporting that hikers and tourists should stay from this area, so I would assume that humans are on the landscape there.
Mottram: I can’t really say for sure. Lightning is not impossible, but neither is human activity. It is the middle of the hunting/fishing/berry-picking/hiking season, and this area is known for reindeer. In fact, the Greenland press had an interview with a reindeer hunter who had to turn back from visiting because of the smoke in the fjord. Actually, the hunter wanted the fire put out by the authorities, so he could go hunting there.
What has the weather been like in Greenland during the last few months? Has it been unusually hot or dry where this fire is burning?
Mottram: It has been a very dry summer in the south but also quite dry in this region, and the fire was preceded by some relatively high temperatures. My climatologist colleague John Cappelen tells me that the DMI station at Sisimiut measured an precipitation anomaly of -30.0 millimeters for June and -20.7 millimeters for July compared to the mean precipitation of 1981-2010. In other words, there was almost no rain in June and a bit more than half the usual rainfall in July. There have also been some warm days in Sisimiut (or at least at the airport where the weather station is), particularly towards the end of the month. The monthly average temperature was 7.1 Celsius compared to a 1961-1990 average of 6.3 Celsius in July. The trend has continued into August as well.
This fire got me wondering why there are ice-free areas along Greenland’s coast where vegetation grows. Are these relatively new features? How do you think they got there?
Lhermitte: I am no absolute expert here, but these ice free coastal areas are mainly the result of the bedrock topography, where the coastal Greenland areas are much more elevated than the interior of Greenland. Since the last glacial maximum, the ice sheet has partly retreated and exposed more land. If the ice sheet would retreat further, we would see more of the inner, lower land exposed.
Mottram: The ice sheet is more or less in equilibrium with the climate, so it is where it is because that is where the glaciers can flow. During the last glacial maximum, the ice sheet extended far out onto the continental shelf and connected (in the north west) with the Laurentide ice sheet in North America. Then, with warming after the last glacial period, the ice sheet retreated. (That is, more ice was melting and calving away than was being replenished by snowfall.) The ice sheet has been more or less stable in its present extent for about the last 10,000 years (with some smaller advances and retreats responding to more local climate variability).
There’s an Unprecedented Wildfire in Greenland. That’s Bad News for the Arctic.
Across the entire Arctic, forests are burning at a rate unseen in at least 10,000 years.
11 August 2017
By Eric Holthaus
This story was originally published by Grist and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
This is going to sound weird, but there’s a wildfire right now in west Greenland. You know, that huge island of mostly ice? Part of it is on fire.
There’s been nothing even close to this since reliable satellite-based fire detection records began in Greenland in 2000. Very small wildfires can evade satellite detection, and old-timer scientists who have worked in Greenland for decades say that micro-fires there aren’t necessarily uncommon.
This week’s fire, however, is on another level.
“This is the largest wildfire we know of,” says Stef Lhermitte, a satellite expert at Technische Universiteit in Delft, Netherlands, who did some of the initial mapping of the fire. “For a lot of people, it’s been a bit of discovery on the go.” The fire was first spotted by a local aircraft on July 31.
What’s striking about the Greenland fire is that it fits a larger trend of rapid change across the northern reaches of the planet. A 2013 study found that across the entire Arctic, forests are burning at a rate unseen in at least 10,000 years.
By American standards, the Greenland fire is small, covering around 1,200 acres (about two square miles) – about the size of midtown Manhattan. The massive Lodgepole Complex wildfire that scorched eastern Montana in July – the largest fire in the country this year – was more than 200 times bigger. But for Greenland, a fire of this size is so unusual that even scientists who study the huge island don’t really know what to make of it.
The Danish meteorological service (Greenland is technically an autonomously governing part of Denmark) said it has no experts who specialize in Greenland fire. The European Commission has tasked its Emergency Management Service with a rapid mapping of the region of the fire, in part to help local officials assess the risks to public health. Mark Parrington, a meteorologist with the European government, said on Twitter that he “didn’t expect to be adding Greenland into my fire monitoring,” adding that he may need to recalibrate his air pollution models to account for the smoldering way that fire tends to burn in permafrost soil.
Riikka Rinnan, an ecologist at the University of Copenhagen, said her research team had started work earlier this summer on how potential fires could impact Greenland’s tundra, but didn’t expect one so soon. Jessica McCarty, a satellite data expert at Miami University in Ohio, said she’s planning to have one of her students construct what might be the first-ever comprehensive history of fires in Greenland.
And yes, as you might expect, climate change probably made this whole thing more likely.
“Everything we know suggests that fire will increase in the Arctic,” climate scientist Jason Box, whose work focuses on Greenland, told me. “It’s fair to say that it’s part of the pattern of warming. We should see more such fires in Greenland.”
Though west Greenland, where the fire is burning, is a semi-arid region, rainfall and temperatures there have been increasing, helping to foster more dense vegetation. Box says this is part of the “shrubification” of the entire Arctic as temperatures warm and the growing season lengthens. Denser vegetation is making large fires more likely, in combination with the simultaneous tendency for longer and more intense droughts and the rise in thunderstorm likelihood due to erratic weather patterns.
Box says he saw a fire in west Greenland back in 1999. “It’s pretty interesting for Greenland, people don’t think about it as a place where that’s possible – nor did I until I saw it with my own eyes.” Once he realized he was watching a wildfire, he said, “It was like, what the heck? What is going on?”
What set off this blaze? The scientists I spoke with aren’t sure. The primary cause of Arctic wildfires is lightning, but a lightning storm in Greenland would have been news. Thunderstorms typically need warm, humid air for fuel, and both are in short supply so close to the world’s second largest ice sheet.
According to John Kappelen, a Danish meteorologist, the region surrounding the fire has had well below average rainfall since June, making wildfire more likely.
“This time of year, everybody’s going out and picking berries and fishing and hunting,” says Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist at the Danish meteorological service who conducts frequent fieldwork in Greenland. Maybe someone in the area set a fire that grew into the big blaze. Greenland’s second largest town, Sisimiut, with a population of 5,500, is about 90 miles away.
Mottram says that if the fire is burning in peatland, it could rage for weeks. If the winds shift, soot from the fire could be transported up to the ice sheet, where it might speed local melting in the coming years by darkening the surface of the ice, helping it to absorb more energy from the sun. This is something that scientists like Box and Mottram are spending their careers studying, but up to now, they thought that virtually all the soot that’s making the bright white ice darker was transported there from Canada or Russia. Now, a new source may be emerging.
Should wildfires like this one increase in frequency, we may have just witnessed the start of a new, scary feedback loop.
Massive Greenland wildfires could mark a new era in global warming
The largest wildfire on record has been raging across western Greenland for more than a week – a development that is particularly striking given that 80 per cent of the country is covered by thick ice. But satellite images have shown a wildfire stretching across an area of up to 6 square miles – producing a 1.2 mile high smoke plume in the process – about 90 miles to northeast of the town of Sisimiut. Unprecedented level of wildfires Wildfires are unusual on the icey island – large ones in particular – where temperatures rarely reach 10C even in the height of summer. But Greenland has recorded an unprecedented 40 fires so far this year – more than double the previous record of 19 set in 2015.
Experts believe the surge in the number and size of wildfires is likely to be due to rising temperatures drying out the peat. The peat is exposed as the permafrost melts, leaving large areas susceptible to fires. Too soon to blame climate change Scientists say it is too early to definitely link the surge in wildfires to global warming – but many believe it could be the case. And they are watching the situation very closely to see if the bout represents a new milestone in global warming – to add to the 1C we have seen since 1850 and the increase in storms and extreme weather in recent years – or whether it is simply a freak of nature. “The jury is still out on the significance of this. But it is fair to say scientists find this very unusual and will now be tracking wildfires in Greenland for increases signs of climate change impacts,” said wildfire expert Professor Jessica McCarty from Miami University.
“If these types of fires become more common in Greenland in the next three to ten years, then this will signal a shift in fire regimes. Scientists will then be able to say with some confidence that 2017 marked a significant turning point for wildfires near the second largest body of ice in the world,” Prof McCarty told i. Experts believe the surge in the number and size of wildfires is likely to be due to rising temperatures drying out the peat. The peat is exposed as the permafrost melts, leaving large areas susceptible to fires. Scientists say it is too early to definitely link the surge in wildfires to global warming – but many believe it could be the case. Is this a new milestone? And they are watching the situation very closely to see if the bout represents a new milestone in global warming – to add to the 1C temperature rise we have seen since 1850 and the increase in storms and extreme weather in recent years – or a one-off event. “The jury is still out on the significance of this. But it is fair to say scientists find this very unusual and will now be tracking wildfires in Greenland for increases signs of climate change impacts,” said wildfire expert Professor Jessica McCarty from Miami University. “If these types of fires become more common in Greenland in the next three to ten years, then this will signal a shift in fire regimes. Scientists will then be able to say with some confidence that 2017 marked a significant turning point for wildfires near the second largest body of ice in the world,” Prof McCarty told i.
Largest ever wildfire in Greenland seen burning from space
11 August 2017
By Katrina Mamsa
The largest wildfire on record has been captured in new satellite images across western Greenland.
The images show a ‘sizeable fire’ about 90 miles (150 km) northeast of the town of Sisimiut.
The wildfire is estimated to stretch between 1.9 to 5.8 square miles (5 and 15 square km), with smoke reaching up to 1.2 miles (2 km) high.
Wildfires are unusual on the island, where temperatures rarely reach 10C (50F) in the height of summer, and 80 per cent of the land is covered by thick ice.
But Greenland has seen an ‘exceptional’ number this year, with as many as 40 fires reported so far – more than double the previous record of 19 set in 2015.
Experts have now linked two of these fires to peat that may have dried out as temperatures have risen.
Global warming has meant that across Greenland there is now less surface water than in the past.
This creates peaty soil and makes vegetation more susceptible to fire.
Satellite images have revealed a number of smoke plumes, forcing officials to warn hikers and tourists to stay away from the remote region.
Local police say billowing smoke from a blaze on the uninhabited island of Nassuttooq, covering an area of up to 6 square miles (15 square km) – the largest wildfire recorded – ‘could result in people losing their bearings.’
‘Usually when a wildfire is smouldering like that it’s because there’s a lot of ground-level fuel, carbon organic matter; that’s why I assume that it’s peat,’ wildfire expert Professor Jessica McCarty, from Miami University, told BBC News.
‘The fire line is not moving, the fire is not progressing like we’d see in a forest fire, so that means it’s burning whatever fuel is on the ground.’
Melting permafrost due to rising temperatures is the likely cause of this outbreak, Professor McCarthy added.
Previous research around the town of Sisimiut shows that permafrost is degrading at a rapid rate in the region.
Locals say they have seen a number of ‘soil fires’ before, especially in the last 20-30 years.
Researchers are now studying satellite image records to look for evidence of previous outbreaks.
‘The only record I found is the MODIS active fire record,’ said Dr Stef Lhermitte from Delft University in the Netherlands.
‘It’s a satellite that measures the temperature of the surface and can locate hotspots from fire.
‘I think that fires have been there before but what’s different is that this fire is big, in Greenlandic terms; that is unusual.
‘It’s the biggest one we have in the satellite record.’
More fires have been detected in 2017 in Greenland than in the previous 15 years combined, Dr Lhermitte said.
Whether the fires are the result of climate change is still up for debate, and scientists will have to wait until the blazes have burned out to confirm the theory.
‘This peat is less than 70km (44 miles) from the ice sheet,’ said Professor McCarthy.
‘It’s a little difficult to believe that it would be degraded already without increasing melting and higher temperatures.
‘But as a scientist we can’t say it’s definitely climate change until we’ve done the analysis after the fire.’
In a real clash of fire and ice, a massive wildfire in southern Greenland has captured the world’s attention.
At the end of July, a couple of NASA satellites detected hot spots in Greenland that indicated fire, said Mark Ruminski, a team leader for a hazard mapping system of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But fires are unexpected in Greenland, so he and his team thought it might be an error in the data.
of a wildfire near Sisimiut, the second-largest city in Greenland. When clouds cleared a few days later, NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite and the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellites captured photos of the largest of the fires from high above.
Although ice covers nearly all of Greenland, fires do occasionally break out on the ice sheet’s margins. Hearing of the new sightings, Stef Lhermitte, a geoscientist who specializes in remote sensing at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, reviewed the past 17 years of data from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite and threw together a quick analysis on Twitter to help give context to the situation.
Mark Parrington, an atmospheric chemist who works with the European Union’s Copernicus Earth observation program, also tweeted an analysis of carbon dioxide emissions that indicates spikes of fire activity in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
No Fuel, No Fire
Although the current fire’s cause remains a mystery, peat from thawed permafrost could be its fuel, said Jessica McCarty, a geographer at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who specializes in geospatial analysis of wildfires.
Permafrost, or permanently frozen soil, lies under multiple meters of an ‘active’ soil layer that thaws seasonally. But in certain areas, when ice within the thawing permafrost layer melts, it can expose peat, a material that forms after decomposing plants get smashed down for centuries.
The peat is made up of organic matter, most notably carbon, McCarty said. Given how readily it burns, she added, it’s almost like one giant charcoal briquette.
McCarty suspects the fire’s fuel is peat for several reasons. First, the fire isn’t moving, like it would in a forest (not that there are any trees to speak of in this region of Greenland, she noted). In addition, the fire’s smoke is white, indicating damp fuel, like freshly thawed permafrost.
The fire’s smoke is white, indicating damp fuel, like freshly thawed permafrost.If the fire is being fueled by thawed permafrost, there may be underlying climate change implications, McCarty continued. “The climate change [connection] is that there would be no fires here in Greenland if there were no fuel, and the only way that there’s fuel is if the permafrost is [thawed].”
“Personally, this is very disturbing to me,” McCarty said, because the fire indicates significant permafrost degradation “sooner than [scientists] thought it would happen.” Researchers project significant permafrost loss in Greenland by the end of the century. Not 2017, she said.
In 2011, scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks modeled the fate of Greenland’s permafrost under a changing climate. Researchers study permafrost because of its potential to thaw and subsequently release carbon – in the form of methane and carbon dioxide– into the atmosphere. Permafrost makes up about 80% of Greenland’s land that’s not perpetually buried under ice.
The researchers wanted to know how much climate change would contribute to permafrost degradation, which is the decrease in the thickness of the permanently frozen soil. Their models revealed that by the end of the century, parts of Greenland could warm 1.99C and that the active top layer of soil could extend downward an additional 44 centimeters, meaning that there would be less ice locking in carbon.
“Most of the terrestrial [ice-free] portion of Greenland is at risk of permafrost degradation,”wrote Vladimir Romanovsky, a permafrost researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a coauthor on the research. Especially in southern Greenland, where the fire currently burns, permafrost degradation has already begun, Romanovsky toldEos.
Natural Versus Unnatural
Southern Greenland is already warmer than the northern region naturally, Romanovsky said, so its permafrost is more vulnerable to begin with. Because the Little Ice Age ended in the past 150-200 years, some warming, and thus degradation, is natural.
“Fire itself will add to the problem and accelerate [thawing] of permafrost.”
Other factors contributing to permafrost degradation include glacial meltwater and human activities like constructing roads and buildings. Rising temperatures from the past 20-30 years of anthropogenic climate change have probably contributed as well. And when the ice in the ancient soils melts, it can expose peat to drier conditions – a perfect recipe for fire, Romanovsky said.
Then, in a feedback loop, “fire itself will add to the problem and accelerate [thawing] of permafrost,” he continued, which will cause more ice in the permafrost to melt and drain away and lead to further drying.
Fire Meets Ice
The fire poses another threat, McCarty said. It could release black carbon, which might fall onto the nearby ice sheet and accelerate its melting. Burning of biomass like peat, among other things, releases black carbon, which is much darker than ice. Black carbon deposited onto ice sheets lowers the ice’s ability to reflect sunlight and boosts its heat absorption, McCarty said, potentially speeding up melting.
As of Tuesday, the wind was blowing smoke from the fire over the ice sheet, McCarty said. She has already started analyzing how much black carbon it might deposit.
Unfortunately, there’s no telling when the fire may end, McCarty said. The longer it burns, the more it exacerbates the black carbon problem. With little to no rain in the forecast, Greenland’s options are limited, she continued. Officials could either attempt to transfer water into extremely remote areas to quench the flames or wait until the year’s first snow, which will most likely fall next month.
Greenland is Still Burning, but the Smoke may be the Real Problem
15 August 2017
The wind direction from the fire in western Greenland has largely blown smoke toward the island’s ice sheet and away from communities. Source: Landsat 8 image of 12 August 2017 (US Geological Survey)
More than two weeks after they were first spotted, wildfires on the western coast of Greenland are still burning, worrying local residents and drawing the attention of scientists.
The fires are roughly 90 miles northeast of the second-largest Greenlandic town, Sisimiut, as we previously reported. There are currently three growing hot spots, according to an analysis of NASA data by Stef Lhermitte, an assistant professor of geoscience and remote sensing at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
Nina-Vivi Andersen, a reporter for Nanoq News in the capital, Nuuk, has lived in Greenland her whole life and says she has never heard of a wildfire there. “It’s very unusual,” she says, and the timing is particularly bad because reindeer hunting season just opened on Aug. 1.
Satellite data suggests that a campfire or a cigarette likely started the fires.
“We have been talking with hunters and stuff like that, and they are very sad about the wildfire,” she says. The hunters’ concerns have prompted a minor firefighting effort by one of the two regional governments in the area of the blazes. Andersen says the government in Qaasuitsup municipality, which includes the World Heritage Site town of Ilulissat, has sent about 15 firefighters to assess the fires and see what might be done to protect the reindeer territory.
The wind direction has largely blown smoke toward the island’s ice sheet and away from communities, including the international airport at Kangerlussuaq, where travelers said they could smell the smoke last week. But while the wind direction is good news in the short term, it may spell danger in the long term, says Jessica McCarty, an assistant professor of geography at Miami University in Ohio.
“The [thing] that I’m concerned about for Greenland is the black carbon,” she says, “You can think of it as the part of smoke that’s black. The soot. And when black carbon deposits on ice – something that’s very dark in color on something that’s very white – that then speeds up the melting of the Greenland ice sheet.”
Melting ice drives sea level rise and is one way wildfires near glaciers can exacerbate the effects of climate change.
McCarty has been studying satellite and other data about the Greenland fires for weeks now and notes that the area appears to be home to mostly low vegetation like moss on rocks, with no trees or tall grasses. She says all signs point to this being a peat fire.
“[Peat] is a good fuel source,” she explains. “It’s essentially like the peat logs you buy for fire pits or for fireplaces.” When peat burns, the flames don’t run across the landscape quickly the way they do in grass or forest fires. Instead, peat fires smolder down into the ground, so the boundaries change more slowly and they can burn for a very long time. Some peat fires have been known to persist through winter months, smoldering away under the snow.
Peat fires also release a lot of greenhouse gasses. “Peat is basically pure carbon. So, yes, when it burns it releases a lot of CO2,” says McCarty.As for whether these rare Greenland fires are being caused by climate change, McCarty says it probably contributes, but she needs to study it more.
“The Earth is complex. Our climate system is complex. Rarely can we say it’s one thing that caused this. But in this example, we do know that it was not expected for the permafrost to be at this condition so soon,” she says. Permafrost is perennially frozen soil. Climate models had predicted that it would take until 2050 for the permafrost to melt as much as these fires suggest it has.
McCarty and other scientists say they’re reviewing decades of satellite data about Greenland – studying fire patterns in one of the last places they expected to.
Fire is uncommon in Greenland, yet smoke plumes rose from Greenland south of Disko Bay in August 2017
12 August 2017
Greenland is best known for its ice, but some remote sensing scientists found themselves closely tracking a sizable wildfire burning along the island’s coast in August 2017. The fire burned in western Greenland, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) northeast of Sisimiut.
While it is not unprecedented for satellites to observe fire activity in Greenland, a preliminary analysis by Stef Lhermitte of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands suggests that MODIS has detected far more fire activity in Greenland in 2017 than it did during any other year since the sensor began collecting data in 2000.
Fires detected in Greenland by MODIS are usually small, most likely campfires lit by hunters or backpackers. But Landsat did capture imagery of another sizable fire in August 2015. According to Ruth Mottram of the Danish Meteorological Institute (DNI), neither DNI nor other scientific groups maintain detailed records of fire activity in Greenland, but many meteorologists at the institute have heard anecdotal reports of fires.
The blaze appears to be burning through peat, noted Miami University scientist Jessica McCarty. That would mean the fire likely produced a sharp increase in wildfire-caused carbon dioxide emissions in Greenland for 2017,noted atmospheric scientist Mark Parrington of the European Commission’s Copernicus program.
It is not clear what triggered this fire, though a lack of documented lightning prior to its ignition suggests the fire was probably triggered by human activity. The area is regularly used by reindeer hunters, and is not too far from a town with a population of 5,500 people.
The summer has been quite dry. Sisimiut saw almost no rain in June and half of the usual amount in July. That may have parched dwarf willows, shrubs, grasses, mosses, and other vegetation that commonly live in Greenland’s coastal areas and made them more likely to burn.
Fires emit a soot-like material called black carbon. It is likely that winds will transport some of this material east to the ice sheet where it will contribute to a line of darkened snow and ice along the western edge of Greenland’s ice sheet. This area is of interest to climate scientists because darkened snow and ice tends to melt more rapidly than when it is clean.