Climate Change: Greenland Wildfires Triggered by Rising Temperatures, Scientists Warn

A close-up of the wildfire in west Greenland acquired on August 3. NASA Earth Observatory / Jesse Allen / U.S. Geological Survey

Greenland is burning. Not all of it—this northern island is mostly ice—but a cluster of large wildfires is currently spreading through western Greenland, near the town of Kangerlussuaq, a base camp for researchers studying the island's ice sheets. The strange event has surprised researchers, who are unaccustomed to blazes of this size in the area.

At first, scientists thought traces of smoke in the satellite data from this region were anomalies in the data, says Jessica McCarty, assistant professor of geography at Miami University of Ohio. But a closer look revealed that the area was burning.

The fires started on July 31 and are still going strong. Researchers suspect that the fire is fueled by peat, a dark soil rich in organic material found throughout the northern latitudes. Besides peat, only grasses and rocks make up the landscape in this region, McCarty says. The largest of these fires covers an area that is 3,000 acres in size, and the blaze is likely the largest ever observed on the island, says Jeff Weber, a scientist with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

Climate change has almost certainly contributed to this fire. Research shows that warming temperatures associated with human influences have already led to the melting and degradation of west Greenland's permafrost, soil and sediment that usually stays frozen year-round. Rain has been sparse this summer, and temperatures have been slightly warmer than average, drying out the soil and grass and setting the stage for the fire, McCarty adds.

It's unclear how the fire started. McCarty suspects it was ignited by people camping or driving ATVs in this area. But Sander Veraverbeke, an assistant professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam who specializes in forest fires and satellite data, thinks the initial spark probably came from lightning. Veraverbeke and colleagues showed in a paper published in late June in Nature Climate Change that warming temperatures are leading to more lightning strikes in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. Although this area is much farther north, and consists of tundra rather than forests, he suspects that as the climate warms, Greenland will also experience more lightning strikes.

A week of the Greenland wildfire burning as seen from MODIS Aqua/Terra satellites @Pierre_Markuse @m_parrington @ruth_mottram @jmccarty_geo

— Stef Lhermitte (@StefLhermitte) August 7, 2017

Researchers haven't carefully tracked lightning strikes or wildfires in Greenland because neither occurrence was common. That will now change. "Now, we're going to have to start monitoring Greenland for wildfires, and that's not something we'd ever really thought about," McCarty says.

The Greenland wildfire is spitting out white smoke visible from space. NASA Earth Observatory / Jesse Allen / U.S. Geological Survey

The scientific record contains many studies involving wildfires and Greenland (some of them invoking the favorite "fire and ice" theme in the title—academics have to have fun too), but very few involve current conflagrations. Rather, they detail the deposition of char from forest fires far afield in the old layers of ice.

Fires like the ones now raging may accelerate warming in two ways. They could deposit more dark soot on the surface of Greenland's abundant ice, which will then absorb more heat, leading to more melting, Weber says. The fires will also increase the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas normally locked up in the permafrost, Veraverbeke says.

The Greenland blazes "fit into this pattern [of warming], and it's worrisome," he adds.

To wrap up: wildfires have occurred in the past over Greenland but 2017 is exceptional in number of active fire detections by MODIS

— Stef Lhermitte (@StefLhermitte) August 7, 2017