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Greenland wildfire part of unusual spike in Arctic blazes this summer

Wildfire in Qeqqata municipality, Greenland, as seen by satellite July 14. (Pierre Markuse/European Space Agency)

Two years after a wildfire raging in Greenland garnered international headlines, satellite imagery and ground reports detected another fire burning in the same region, near the community of Sisimiut in southwest Greenland.

The Sisimiut blaze, first detected July 10, ended between Sunday and Wednesday, based on satellite imagery.

It comes amid an unusually warm and dry stretch in the area, with melting on the vast Greenland ice sheet commencing a month earlier than average.

It remains to be seen whether the ice sheet will reach the record melt seen in 2012, scientists say.

“The melt season has been consistently melting for the last few weeks — not spectacularly high for any given day — well within the expected range, but it has been consistent day after day after day, so it’s definitely mounting up,” said Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist with the Danish Meteorological Institute.

It’s not clear how unusual the Greenland blaze is. It probably burned in an area with mossy wetlands known as “fen” and may have been started by hikers in the area, according to Mottram. There is no reliable long-term data set on Greenland wildfires, given that satellite detection of fires is new and the region is sparsely populated.

However, the Greenland fire fits a broader pattern that is raising alarms in the climate science community. According to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), the European science organization tracked more than 100 “intense and long-lived wildfires” above the Arctic Circle since June. Calculations show these fires emitted enough carbon dioxide to be the equivalent of Sweden’s total annual emissions.

“This is more than was released by Arctic fires in the same month between 2010 and 2018 combined,” the CAMS statement said.

CAMS senior scientist Mark Parrington said the latitude and intensity of the fires, as well as their duration, set them apart from what is typically seen in this region during the warmer months.

The ongoing Arctic fires have been especially severe in Siberia and Alaska, and smoke has drifted over Arctic sea and land ice, which can hasten its melt.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced Thursday that weather patterns Arctic-wide, plus long-term warming trends, have pushed the dwindling sea ice cover to reach its second-lowest extent on record for the month of June. It may be headed for another record low at the end of the melt season in September.

The Arctic overall is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the world because of inherent feedbacks ⁠ — processes that can affect natural climate drivers ⁠ — in the climate system. These include the ice-albedo feedback, whereby sea ice melts, exposing darker ocean waters to incoming sunlight, which causes water temperatures to rise and melts more ice.

Alaska was recently in the grips of an epic heat wave, which saw temperatures in Anchorage reach 90 degrees for the first time on record. Sea ice retreated from the state’s shores unusually early and virtually vanished from the Bering and Chukchi seas earlier than normal.