Canada is burning, the Arctic is glowing red | Polarjournal
Sunsets have been particularly glorious lately, like here in Greenland. And Canada’s forest fires have something to do with it. Although pretty to look at, it is not without consequences for the global and the Arctic environment. Image: Mirjana Binggeli.

Canada is in the grip of the most devastating fires in its history. The smoke from these fires is spreading as far as Europe and the Arctic, bringing a smoggy atmosphere and crimson skies. Several regions, notably in the United States, experienced a sharp deterioration in air quality, prompting the authorities to take measures aimed at protecting their populations. As vast swathes of Canada’s boreal forest go up in smoke, the question arises as to what impact these fires will have on the Arctic.

The wildfires currently ravaging Canada have affected 10 million hectares. At least 120,000 people were displaced and two firefighters were killed. Nearly 900 fires, including megafires, are still active, of which nearly 600 are now out of control. The Canadian authorities had to resolve to let a good part of it burn.

The fires are mainly concentrated in the least inhabited regions, certainly limiting human and infrastructural damage but affecting the boreal forest, with serious and far-reaching consequences for the environment.

Megafires are currently ravaging Canada, with a particular concentration in Alberta, Nova Scotia and Quebec. The Northwest Territories are also affected with nearly 90 active fires and 800,000 hectares burned. A dozen fires have now been declared out of control by the authorities, who have had to resign themselves to letting them burn. Map: Fire Information for Resource Management System US / Canada.

Smoke cloud and red stars

The fires also had an indirect impact on Europe and the United States, with smoggy cities and deteriorating air quality in several regions, as smoke from the forest fires spread across the northern hemisphere.

This video, dated 8 June, shows the movement of smoke generated by the fires from Canada to the North American continent. Video: NOAA.

Since the end of June, the press has widely shared the news, and spectacular images of a red sun and moon – a phenomenon linked to the presence of smoke particles in the air – have been circulating on social networks.

The huge smoke cloud also affected the Arctic with possible consequences on this environment already sevrely hit by global warming.

A vicious circle

Forest fires release toxic particles and gases,such as such as nitrogen and sulfur dioxides, carbon monoxide and CO2, into the air. These are then picked up by the wind systems, transported over long distances and settled anywhere. The impact of such transports is massive and does not only affect the health of any population. By settling on surfaces, these particles can darken ice caps, and glaciers. Instead of reflecting the sun’s rays, the snow and ice then absorb the radiation causing it to melt and warm further. Moreover, rising temperatures and heat waves are drying out forests causing an increase in fires which will in turn release even more particles and gases into the atmosphere.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) had calculated over 103 million tonnes of carbon released into the atmosphere in 2014 as a result of the megafires that had hit Canada. At the time, more than 4 million hectares went up in flames.

The vast fires that have particularly affected the forests of the Arctic Circle in recent years, whether in Canada, Alaska, Siberia or Scandinavia, are part of a worrying trend: subarctic forests and Arctic tundra are burning at an unprecedented rate, scale and intensity. And the vicious circle continues: by releasing gases, these fires contribute to rising temperatures that melt the permafrost, which itself contains large quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

As they warm up, peat and permafrost soils dry out and release more vaporized water, which intensifies storms and therefore lightning, which are the main causes, along with human activities, for starting wildfires.

Fires in arctic and subarctic regions are becoming more frequent, widespread and violent, like the tundra fires that ravaged Siberia last year. Image: Copernicus Sentinel Data 2022.

Several projects have emerged in an attempt to contain the problem. Some initiatives are based in particular on collaboration with Indigenous populations and their knowledge. But without international mobilization and real measures, it is difficult to imagine a drastic reduction in these fires which ravage the forests.

One thing’s for sure, though: we’re still likely to see the day and night stars glowing red. Over the centuries, different cultures have seen these phenomena as a bad omen or a warning of impending disaster. How to prove them wrong now?

Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal

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