Something’s Burning: Greenland Fire Update

August 12, 2017

I’m back from Greenland for a week and all hell breaks loose.

Fires burning not far from the area where I was camped a few weeks ago, Russell Glacier area near Kangerlussuaq.
The video above shows what the Tundra surface is like.  Thick, soft mat of moss, lichen,  grasses and flowers. Below, Hydrologist Asa (Oh-Sah) Rennermalm of Rutgers describes surface processes affecting the permafrost.


Thousands of acres of permafrost are burning in what appears to be Greenland’s biggest fire on record. And climate scientists are freaking out not just because the massive fires are unusual, but because they release large amounts of greenhouse gases and speed up the melt of the ice sheet and the carbon-rich permafrost.


“Fires in the High Northern Latitudes release significant CO2, CH4, N20, and black carbon,” said Dr. McCarty. “A fire this close to the Greenland Ice Shelf is likely to deposit additional black carbon on the ice, further speeding up the melt.”

And, no, this massive Greenland wildfire, which began at the end of July, is “not a typical wildfire,” as satellite data expert Prof. Stef Lhermitte told The Independent. “It’s a rare and unusual event. This one is the biggest one in the satellite record that we know of.”

Lhermite tweeted that, based on data from NASA’s Modis satellite,  “wildfires

have occurred in the past over Greenland but 2017 is exceptional in number of

active fire detections by MODIS.”


The European Space Agency was also surprised that Greenland had such a huge wildfire, tweeting, “This image of shows massive forest fire. Yes it is .”

Yet scientists have long predicted that global warming would lead to more wildfires in the defrosting Arctic. A 2008 study using paleoclimate data concluded, “greater fire activity will likely accompany temperature-related increases in shrub-dominated tundra predicted for the 21st century and beyond.” A 2013 study found that northern boreal forests are now burning at a rate not seen for at least 10,000 years–and double the rate seen hundreds of years ago.

A 2014 study found that the record-smashing ice-melt in July 2012, when 97 percent of Greenland’s surface was melting, was not just driven by rising temperatures. It was also exacerbated by black carbon (soot) from massive Siberian wildfires that darkened the great ice sheet, reducing its reflectivity and causing it to absorb more heat from the sun.

As the massive Greenland ice sheet shrinks–ice melt has sped up more than five-fold since the mid-1990s–more formerly ice-covered land will turn to grass- and shrub-covered peatland, leading to more wildfires, leading to more ice melt. No wonder scientists are freaking out.



9 Responses to “Something’s Burning: Greenland Fire Update”

  1. wpNSAlito Says:

    AIUI, one trait of such smoldering fires (like those peat fires in Indonesia) is the larger production of carbon *monoxide* (CO).

  2. redskylite Says:

    I’ve been following this incident in local Greenland newspapers (by use of translate Danish-English), the latest news I read in KNR was a debate of how to tackle this fire was taking place (and the mayor – Ole Dorph was under some criticism for not responding earlier). If the peat has caught fire it is not so simple to put out. Not sure how the reindeer are faring; on one hand hunting has been suspended, on the other, they have to find refuge. The animals are generally having a rough time with the rampant changes occurring in the Arctic region at the moment, reports of many starving animals in Siberia. Increased incident of peat fires is not a total surprise, unfortunately.

    New research outlines global threat of smoldering peat fires (January 2015)

    “The scary thing is future climate change may … dry out peatlands. If peatlands become more vulnerable to fire worldwide, this will exacerbate climate change in an unending loop.”

    Six researchers have written a paper about how climate change is expected to increase the number of peat fires worldwide. This is disturbing for a number of reasons, including the health effects of the additional smoke that humans must breathe, and the additional carbon in the atmosphere may “exacerbate climate change in an unending loop.”

    “When people picture a forest fire, they probably think of flames licking up into tree tops, and animals trying to escape,” said the study’s lead author Merritt Turetsky, a professor of Integrative Biology at University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. “But peat fires tend to be creeping ground fires. They can burn for days and weeks, even under relatively wet conditions. They lack the drama of flames, but they produce a lot of smoke.”

  3. Tom Bates Says:

    How do you equate this doom and gloom with the medieval warm period say around 1000 AD when the viking settled in Greenland. It must have been warmer and somehow the world did not end. If you go back a bit more to say about 6500-4500 BP when the arctic was ice free per NASA research in summer, Greenland must have been warmer and the world did not end.

    Did it ever occur to anybody looking at this that fires in Greenlands grasslands in summer are not unknown. That it is hype not fact which is getting the headlines? There is a reason the mayor was not all up in arms, either he is very stupid which is possible but not likely , or that fires occur on a regular basis in those grass lands in summer, something the satellite data actually shows.

    • redskylite Says:

      Poor old Mayor Ole Dorph – he has had to deal with a recent Tsunami (which also can aggravated by warming), and now a large peat fire. The Medieval warming period was a time of exceptionally high solar radiation, unlike today (it is exceptionally low). Many mischievous sources still tell us the ice age cometh, and yet we observe average temperatures still rising, even during this ENSO neutral period. Again if you want to comment about “Doom and Gloom” there are several groups that can accommodate your desires. Arctic Methane Emergency, Arctic Climate Emergency, guymcpherson (Nature Bats Last) groups and blogs.

      The premise of this blog is that there is still time to avoid the worst, most regular bloggers here accept that rising CO2 and other greenhouse gases are causing the steady increase in temperature and we can lessen it by using alternative energy and resources. If we didn’t believe that we might as well not bother conversing and resign ourselves to doom and gloom, with a bottle of good wine (or whatever). Wrong group Pal.

      • redskylite Says:

        Four missing after tsunami hits Greenland

        Stockholm – Four people were listed as missing Sunday after an earthquake sparked a tsunami off Greenland and forced some residents to be evacuated.

        “Four people are missing,” local broadcaster KNR quoted local police chief Bjorn Tegner Bay as telling a news conference in the autonomous Danish territory.

        There were no confirmed fatalities, but Bay said 11 houses had been swept away after a magnitude 4 overnight quake off Uummannaq, a small island well above the Arctic Circle.

        “The huge waves risk breaking over Upernavik and its environs. The residents of Nuugaatsiaq are going to be evacuated,” police said on Facebook, referring to nearby hamlets.

        Some residents posted images to social media showing huge waves breaking over buildings in the town.

        “A good explanation is that the quake created a fault at the origin of a tsunami,” meteorologist Trine Dahl Jensen told Danish news agency Ritzau, warning of potential aftershocks.

        “It’s not normal, such a large quake in Greenland,” she said.

        KNR quoted Ole Dorph, mayor of Qaasuisup, a municipality in the area affected, as lamenting “a serious and tragic natural catastrophe which has affected the whole region.”

        Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen tweeted news of what he termed a “terrible natural catastrophe at Nuugaatsiaq.”

        The world’s largest island situated between the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, Greenland, population 55 000, has an ice sheet particularly vulnerable to climate change.

        • Lionel Smith Says:

          There could be a number of causal explanations for such a quake but could this not be a signal of isostatic (post-glacial) rebound as the ice mass depletes?

          I have been scoffed at before for suggesting global warming could trigger seismic events but there are other possibly sensitive areas where rising sea levels cause a shift in load of the oceanic crust and the litterol.

  4. Lionel Smith Says:

    How do you equate this doom and gloom with the medieval warm period say around 1000 AD when the viking settled in Greenland.

    There is no comparison. Present warming trends are larger and more geographical widespread as well as much more rapid.

    Plus the areas that are being depleted of ice are huge, taking the landmasses across the northern hemisphere continents as a whole – the potential for fire spread are commensurately large.

  5. Lionel Smith Says:

    Bates in his haste has probably missed this apposite quote from redskylite:

    “But peat fires tend to be creeping ground fires. They can burn for days and weeks, even under relatively wet conditions. They lack the drama of flames, but they produce a lot of smoke.”

    Indeed and furthermore Bates they can burn beneath the surface. How do you think the diabolical practice of Coal Bed Methane (CMB aka Coal Seem Gas in Australia) proceeds. It is experience that wetting the surface can actually lead to higher temperatures at the combustion layer with the fire spreading in extent without much in the way of evidence at the surface.

    This will be a huge positive feedback mechanism in the build up of atmospheric GHGs. It could be judged as one of the tipping points having been crossed.

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