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article imageAlaska, Canada on fire - What will happen when permafrost melts?

By Karen Graham     Jul 8, 2015 in World
Wildfires are burning in some northwestern states and Alaska in the U.S., and British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and northern Alberta in Canada. Smoke from the wildfires have led to the issuing of air quality advisories as far south as Colorado in the U.S.
It is difficult to estimate the number of wildfires burning in the northeastern regions of North America, but according to the latest updates, in Alaska there are over 600 fires that have burned over 3.2 million acres. Canada has over 4,000 wildfires. That is a heck of a lot, folks.
Even though the numbers and intensity of the wildfires we are seeing today are not close to the intensity of the fiery season we had in 2004, Sam Harrel, a spokesperson for the Alaska Fire Service puts it this way: “We are on a track for a lot of acres this year.”
Location of active wildfires in Alaska as of July 6  2015.
Location of active wildfires in Alaska as of July 6, 2015.
Alaska Fire Service/Google Earth
With the fire season still in the early stages, there is now a real fear the fires could accelerate the melting of the permafrost. This is the layer of ground that's not supposed to reach above the freezing mark. Permafrost needs to stay frozen because it is one of the Earth's biggest storehouses of Carbon. Releasing that carbon will speed up climate change.
The permafrost's insulation is at risk of burning
Permafrost is able to stay frozen because of a layer of insulation called "duff." Duff is made up of thick layers of twigs, moss, needles and other living, or once-living material blanketing the forest floor. This layer is easily one-foot deep. The duff keeps the permafrost cool, even in the warm days of summer. But once duff catches fire, it is like ripping out the insulation from a house. And it also will release carbon into the atmosphere.
Fire ecologist Eric Miller says Alaska's fire seasons have gotten 40 percent longer than they were two decades ago. He added that it takes a forest almost a decade to replace just four inches of duff burned off by wildfires. We can add to the dismal facts. In 2014, Alaska experienced its hottest year ever.
This year is not much better, temperature-wise, and the melting of the permafrost has already become worrisome. And in Alaska and Canada, this could be a problem for transportation, because roads are built on permafrost, and it's supposed to be stable and solid, not to mention it's a unique habitat for wildlife and plants.
Map showing wildfires across Canada as of July 8  2015.
Map showing wildfires across Canada as of July 8, 2015.
Natural Resources Canada
Where there's fire, there's smoke, and more smoke
From Alaska to Canada and down into the continental United States, air quality advisories and alerts are in effect. Winds and continuing heat, as well as the dry conditions, have kept firefighters battling on the fire lines.
In Canada, the number of fires burning in the three provinces has forced authorities to seek help from the Canadian military as well as other countries, including Mexico and Australia. Steve Roberts, a Saskatchewan wildfire management official, said better visibility has allowed aircraft to dump water on the flames there.
The Seattle Times quoted Roberts as saying,“As we started down the road with these fires, Alberta and British Columbia fire hazards escalated, the numbers of fires increased and they had community evacuations as well. That has stretched the availability of resources across the country.”
Environment Canada has issued special air quality advisories for parts of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and northwest Ontario due to wildfire smoke. Air quality advisories have also been issued for U.S. states, including Washington state, North and South Dakota and Colorado.
El nino and climate change
Mike Flannigan, a professor at the University of Alberta, said, “Our weather this year has been very hot, dry and windy. This is consistent with what we expect with climate change. I’m not saying every year is going to be a bad fire year, but we are going to see a lot more fire on the landscape.”
Kerry Anderson is a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service. Anderson says the weather pattern known as El nino, caused by the warming of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America, is responsible. He doubts that the fires will be brought under control quickly, saying it may be as late as in the fall before they are contained.
“The large fires that are burning there will continue to burn until they are contained or until a fire-ending event may occur, and that may just end up being the first snowfall," he added.
More about alaska wildfires, canadian wildfires, Permafrost, Climate change, Carbon
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