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Alaska on fire: Thousands of lightning strikes and a warming climate set Alaska in motion for another historic fire season

Alaska is on pace for another historic wildfire year, with the fastest start to the fire season on record. By mid-June 2022, more than 1 million acres had burned. By early July, that number stood at more than 2 million acres, more than twice the number of a typical Alaska fire season.

Rick Thoman, a climatologist at the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks, explains why Alaska is experiencing such large, intense fires this year and how the fire season is changing in the region.

Why are there so many fires in Alaska this year?

There isn’t an easy answer.

At the start of the season, southwest Alaska was one of the few areas in the state with less snow than usual. Then we had a hot spring, and southwest Alaska dried up. In late May and early June, thunderstorms provided the spark.

Global warming has also increased the amount of fuel – plants and trees – available to burn. More fuel means more intense fire.

So, weather factors – warm springs, low snowpack and unusual thunderstorm activity – combined with multidecade warming have allowed vegetation to develop in southwest Alaska, together with promoting an active fire season. Huh.

Alaska On Fire: Thousands Of Lightning Strikes And A Warming Climate Set Alaska In Motion For Another Historic Fire Season
2022 is one of Alaska’s busiest fire years on record.

In the interior of Alaska, much of the region has become unusually dry since late April. So, along with lightning storms, it’s no surprise that we are now seeing many fires in the region. the interior was around 18,000 strikes In two days in early July.

Are such lightning storms frequent?

That’s the million-dollar question.

It’s really a two-part question: Are thunderstorms now occurring more frequently in places that rarely received them? I think the answer is clearly “yes”. Is the total number of strikes increasing? We don’t know, because the networks that track lightning strikes today are more vulnerable than ever.

Alaska On Fire: Thousands Of Lightning Strikes And A Warming Climate Set Alaska In Motion For Another Historic Fire Season
Lightning strikes Alaska on July 2-4, 2022.
All India Congress Committee

Hurricanes in Alaska differ from most of the lower 48 in the sense that they are not associated with weather fronts. They are what meteorologists call air masses or pulse thunderstorms. They are driven by two factors: the available moisture in the lower atmosphere and the temperature difference between the lower and middle atmospheres.

In a warmer world, the air can hold more moisture, so you can get intense storms. In interior Alaska, we’ve been getting frequent thunderstorms. For example, the number of days of thunderstorms recorded at Fairbanks Airport shows a clear increase. Indigenous elders also agree that they are seeing thunderstorms more often.

You mentioned hot fire. How are wildfires changing?

Wildfires are part of the natural ecosystem in the boreal north, but the fires we see now are not the same as those burning 150 years ago.

More fuel, more lightning, higher temperatures, less humidity – they add up to fuel fires that burn hotter and burn deeper into the ground, so instead of scorching trees and burning the underside, they’re eating everything. are, and you are left with this moonlight of ashes.

Spruce trees that rely on fire to burst their cones cannot regenerate when the fire turns those cones into ashes. Those who have been battling the fires in the grounds for decades say they are astounded by the destruction they see now.

Firefighters In Tall Grass Were Engulfed By Flames In The Trees Ahead.
Fire crews walk through tall vegetation while burning defensively against a large complex of fires near Lime Village, Alaska. The cluster of fires totaled more than 780,000 acres as of July 5, 2022.
Brian Quimby/Alaska Incident Management Team

So while fires have been natural here for thousands of years, the fire situation has changed. The frequency of million-acre fires in Alaska has doubled since 1990.

What is the effect of these fires on the population?

The most common effect on humans is smoking.

Most wildfires in Alaska are not burning in heavily populated areas, although they do happen. When you’re burning two million acres, you’re burning a lot of trees, and so you’re putting a lot of smoke into the air, and it travels a long distance.

In early July, we saw explosive wildfire activity north of Lake Iliamna in southwest Alaska. Then the winds were blowing from the southeast, and the thick smoke was carried for hundreds of miles. Air Quality Index at the hospital in Nome, 400 miles away exceeded 600 parts per million As for PM2.5, fine particles that can trigger asthma and damage the lungs. Anything over 150 ppm is unhealthy and anything over 400 ppm is considered dangerous.

Alaska On Fire: Thousands Of Lightning Strikes And A Warming Climate Set Alaska In Motion For Another Historic Fire Season
The burning fire on June 10, 2022, as seen from a satellite.
NASA Earth Observatory
Alaska On Fire: Thousands Of Lightning Strikes And A Warming Climate Set Alaska In Motion For Another Historic Fire Season
A closer look shows people were evacuated near one of the largest tundra fires in the area on record.
NASA Earth Observatory

There are other risks. When fires threaten rural Alaska communities, as happened near St. Mary’s in June 2022, evacuations can mean evacuating people.

The severe fire season also put pressure on firefighting resources everywhere. Firefighting is expensive, and Alaska depends on firefighters, aircraft, and equipment from the lower 48 states and other countries. In the past, when Alaska had a major fire season, crews from the lower 48 would come because their fire season was usually much later. Now, wildfire season is all year round, and there are fewer mobile resources available.

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