Alaska Enveloped in Siberia Wildfire Smoke as Heatwave Causes Irreversible Damage to Permafrost

The damage being caused by Siberia's ongoing heatwave may be causing irreversible damage to the landscape, causing the loss of permafrost that in some cases has been frozen for thousands of years.

The heatwave, which has lasted for months, has exacerbated the wildfires burned across the country. Greenpeace Russia estimates that over 19 million hectares of land has now burned since the start of the year—equivalent to an area bigger than Greece. On Monday, Russia's state run news agency Tass said the area of forest on fire has more than doubled in a week.

Smoke from the fires first reached Alaska at the start of July and since then a smoky haze has returned. In a blog post, NASA wrote: "Most of Alaska is now covered by smoke from the Siberian Fires as it wraps around a low-pressure system."

Patrick Doll, from the National Weather Service's Anchorage office, told Anchorage Daily News the smoke would continue to reach the state until the fires go out. "I wouldn't be surprised if it continued well into the month of August and perhaps even early September," he said.

In June, the Russian town of Verkhoyansk recorded a daytime temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. This, if verified, would be the furthest north a temperature over 100 degrees Fahrenheit had ever been recorded.

High temperatures are also being recorded in other parts of the Arctic. In the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard—home to the world's Doomsday Vault—temperatures recently reached 71.06 degrees Fahrenheit, setting a new record. An all-time high temperature was also recently set in Eureka, on Canada's northern Ellesmere Island.

Siberia's latest heatwave has been attributed to climate change. A report published earlier this month found anthropogenic warming had made the prolonged heat 600 times more likely.

Researchers are concerned that the extreme temperatures in the region will have a lasting impact, particularly on the Arctic permafrost. Permafrost is ground that has been frozen for at least two consecutive years. It contains a huge amount of organic material which, when thawed, starts to degrade, releasing methane—a greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere.

Sue Natali, an Arctic ecologist with the Woods Hole Research Center, Massachusetts, told Newsweek that any additional heat being transferred to the ground can cause permafrost to thaw. She said that if the heatwave were a one-off event, the ground could potentially refreeze.

"Problem is, it's not likely a one-time event—the heat wave is happening on top of an ongoing warming trend, and more extreme temperatures are likely," she said in an email. "Combined with that, in areas with high ice content, the ground can collapse when it thaws because the solid ice melts into liquid water. These abrupt thaw events are pretty much irreversible."

Julian Murton, Professor Of Permafrost Science at the U.K.'s University of Sussex, told Newsweek that over the longer term, higher air temperatures may increase the rate of permafrost thaw—and this has been happening at some Arctic and Subarctic locations over the last few decades.

"The main cause of recent permafrost thaw determined from temperature measurement has been identified as increasing air temperatures, though other factors may contribute or even dominate in places," he said.

When permafrost thaws, particularly that which has a high concentration of ice, the ground becomes unstable. This means any buildings or infrastructure like roads and pipes built on top of it are at risk of damage.

In June, the Siberian Times reported a residential building had split in two after the permafrost it sat above thawed. These concerns are not limited to Russia, but the entire Arctic region where permafrost exists.

"The biggest concerns locally/regionally are impacts to the people who live in the Arctic and to infrastructure, which is at risk because of collapsing ground," Natali said. "The biggest concern globally is carbon emissions as a result of permafrost thaw."

siberia fire
Stock image of a forest fire in Russia. Smoke from wildfires across Siberia have spread to Alaska. iStock