Russian and Canadian Arctic More Vulnerable to Peat Fires

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Rising temperatures put the global north at higher risk of forest fires, including the much more dangerous peat fires

Contrary to popular belief, the Siberian and Canadian Arctic is not perpetually covered in snow. Record-breaking heatwaves in recent years have extended the warm temperature window even further each year, allowing the permafrost to thaw and exposing the rotting vegetation to the elements – and potentially forest fires. 

An old phenomenon of peat fires has been the topic of renewed research interest due to its contribution to the Siberian forest fires earlier last year, but is not limited to Russia alone. Peat is the mossy and earthy substance that covers many areas of the Arctic, including Russia, Canada, and Alaska.  It is composed of rotting  biomass that has been exposed to long periods of “waterlogging, oxygen deficiency, high acidity and nutrient deficiency”, according to the International Peatland Society. Peat has been used as a fuel source for hundreds of years, generally cut away from peat bogs and dried into bricks which are then usually burned in stoves as a coal substitute. This combustible nature of dry peat is the reason that it poses such a threat to the Arctic region.  

Peat serves a vital function in the Arctic, namely as a temperature control and a carbon storage mechanism. Forest fires that set peat deposits on fire do twice the harm, releasing the greenhouse gasses stored in peat into the atmosphere and destroying the temperature buffer that raises regional temperatures even higher – increasing the risk of further fires. Peat fires are notoriously hard to extinguish, as the deposits can extend deep underground and be composed of enormous amounts of carbon materials. These deposits can burn underground for years, decades and even centuries, and release billions of tons of smog into the atmosphere.

For reference, the 1997 Indonesian forest fires lit hundreds of peat deposits ablaze that have never been fully extinguished to date. Researchers reported that by extrapolating the burn depth of peat, an estimated 0.81-2.57 gigatons of carbon was released into the atmosphere from the fires in 1997 alone. This is equivalent of up to 40% of annual fossil fuel emissions. The emissions from the burning peat were “more than all the carbon taken up by all living things on the planet – collectively known as the biosphere – in a single year” and are a major factor in the global warming process, writes Cat Lazaroff for ENS Newswire.

Merritt Turetsky, an ecosystem ecologist and director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado Boulder, explains to the CBC that peat fires can lead to a process known as zombie fires, recounted in stories of people traveling through the north and witnessing smoke coming from under layers of snow. Wildfires that burn into early autumn can be driven underground by snowfall, burning peat deposits under the earth until warm conditions allow it to resurface and become a conventional forest fire again.

Chad Thomas, Tahltan First Nation member and CEO of Yukon First Nations Wildfire, understands the risks posed by peat fires. Burning peat can appear extinguished while burning under the earth, then “creep underground and pop back up along your control lines.”

Fire crews and researchers have conducted controlled burns of peat bogs to better understand the processes of burning peatlands, and have so far determined that trees growing in peatland contribute to drier soil and more flammable peat. Research is ongoing on peat fire prevention and rehabilitation of peat areas after forest fires, as it may take a generation for peatlands to return to a soggy state after a blaze. Sophie Wilkinson, a postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University in Hamilton theorizes that transplanting moisture-bearing moss into fire-ravaged areas may speed up the process of rehabilitation, but more research still needs to be done.

As the carbon emissions rise and global temperatures reach new highs, new solutions may be needed to emerging climate problems. Effective responses and unorthodox strategies may allow the world to save lives, ecosystems and markets in the coming years.  

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