These days, it’s hard not to conclude Mother Nature is deeply pissed off at humanity.
The very elements seem to have declared war on us. Wind, Water, Earth, and Fire routinely converge in ecological catastrophes around the globe, bringing whole populations to their knees as they struggle to catch up to the new normal of a changing climate.
Here, we spotlight the intrigues of Fire within the fray. Fire plays an important role in global carbon cycling, putting it on the front lines of climate change wherever it occurs.
As we speak, the forces of fire are in max-destruction mode as the summer of 2017 winds up to a terrifying October climax. As the world burns, let’s consider for a moment how this year’s stunning wildfires both reveal and accelerate global warming, in ways that are sure to make tomorrow’s fires even more apocalyptic.
The new ‘Mediterranean’ summer
Up and down western North America, it’s been a long and painful summer, baked into human memory by thousands of cruel wildfires. They’ve scorched millions of acres. They’ve killed hundreds and displaced thousands. They’ve broken numerous records of size, intensity and destructiveness. Experts and old-timers agree – despite the West’s long history of drought and fires – this is about the worst it’s ever been. Here’s why.
You may have heard; it’s been really hot and dry across North America. Western regions in particular have seen record-smashing droughts and temperature surges, providing hairtrigger wildfire conditions in one of the hottest years on record, with an extra-long and hazardous fire season to boot. Scientists believe these unusually harsh conditions are directly (though not fully) attributable to the global warming trend.
Add the powerful ‘El Diablo’ winds of early fall on the West Coast and you get the kind of fierce, uncontrollable firestorms now sweeping California’s wine country north of the Bay Area. The flames have reduced hundreds of thousands of bone-dry acres to ash, killing at least 40 people in the act. And they’ve been blasting toxic plumes of smoke into metropolitan areas downstream, temporarily polluting San Francisco’s air to Beijing levels.
As Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, put it, “we are literally looking at explosive vegetation.”
The situation in California dramatizes how global warming is making the typical long, dry Mediterranean summer much longer, drier, hotter – and less hospitable. A remarkably similar crisis is unfolding right now in the likewise-Mediterranean climate of northern Spain and Portugal, and for much the same reasons. There, too, a fearsome cabal of wildfires has broken out, in this case whipped up by the seaborne winds of Hurricane Ophelia on her way north.
It looks like climate warming has seriously weakened both western America and western Eurasia’s ecological resilience, just when it is most needed to face a manic new generation of amped-up wildfires, also fueled by global warming.
Fire in the land of ice
So climate change is turbocharging existing firescapes. But it’s also conjuring fires where you’d least expect them – on the frozen tundra of coastal Greenland, for instance. Weeks ago, several huge (by Greenland standards) wildfires broke out on the western permafrosted edge of the otherwise iced-over island.
Umm… Frozen landscapes don’t typically see a lot of wildfires, right? What do the fires mean?
In short, they mean things aren’t quite so frozen anymore. The unprecedented blazes are feeding on peat, which means they’re probably lighting up where the permafrost has degraded to a point of exposing the boggy fuel. The fires are burning, in other words, because the permafrost – the coldest of all Earth’s biomes – is dying. And the death of permafrost bespeaks still greater troubles, suggesting irreversible shifts are gaining ground, literally: over time we’re seeing the white treeless tundras slowly become green shrublands under a warmer sky. That’s bad news for everything and everyone that has come to depend on the old conditions.
Incidentally, the changes wrought by warming permafrost are really eye-catching. As it thaws, the soil often collapses in on itself, creating enormous wet sinkholes in some places and dry, flammable outcroppings in others. The great de-freeze is actually giving vast stretches of flat frozen expanse a whole new topographic profile – a kind of terra-forming in preparation for a whole new biome. It would be a beautiful thing to behold if it weren’t such an ominous sign for the beholder.
Arctic thaw is not only a consequence and expression of global warming; it’s also a cause and accelerator in its own right – especially when you start lighting things on fire. Here’s why.
The permafrost of the northern tundra is one of the Earth’s great carbon reserves. It holds carbon frozen in time since the last Ice Age. Permafrost and other high-latitude soils harbor more than twice as much carbon as is present in today’s atmosphere. When they melt, they release their pent-up carbon into the atmosphere, directly aggravating global warming. In the event of their total collapse, it would be as though the world’s ice chest had fully transformed into its central heating unit – stuck on overdrive.
Worse, when problems occur in Greenland in particular, the carbon effects are rapidly globalized. That’s because the landmass is a mainstay of the greater Arctic system which cools the whole planet from the top down. As the single largest hunk of permanent ice outside Antarctica, it plays a major role counterbalancing the heat of the sun in ways that sustain ecological temperance between the poles. Hence, what happens in Greenland does not stay in Greenland.
Wildfires can be expected to turn up the dial on these already-transformative processes. Fire knows not the elder, cooling ways of the Arctic. It favors the global warming bandwagon, inevitably provoking still more climate change. As David Wallace-Wells puts it, “more burning only means more warming only means more burning.”
And the fires in Greenland are a triple threat, directly releasing carbon, thawing more coastal permafrost, and releasing particulate rivers of black smoke that will eventually settle on the surface of ice both near and far. Blackened ice quickly melts away into another global warming statistic.
No one likes to see one of the world’s most important A/C units suddenly catch fire. But some observers call it like they see it.
“What’s happening in Greenland will speed up climate change across the world,” warns glacier scientist Kathryn Adamson.
The ‘karbon’ cycle
So Fire — it’s basically scarier than it’s ever been. Like I said, Mother Nature seems a little aggravated. The image of a melting permafrost yielding up its vast stores of carbon to an already carbon-overloaded atmosphere has long haunted scientists who foresee possible “tipping points” in the future evolution of climate change. Some wonder if a widespread collapse of the tundra could trigger runaway warming, perhaps signaling some kind of civilizational apocalypse. The permafrost’s impressive carbon stats certainly seem to suggest the potential is there.
Maybe fire, that great accelerator of carbon cycles, will be the foremost element to bring us to that point-of-no-return… Or, maybe the karma-dense fires of the 21st century will galvanize humanity to make better, more climate-friendly decisions from here on out — not like those 20th/19th-century fires.