More than 200 fires are burning in Alaska. Here’s why the state faces such an extreme climate threat

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More than 200 fires are burning in Alaska. Here’s why the state faces such an extreme climate threat
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America’s great northern expanse is burning.

Alaska, the US’s largest state, is experiencing an extreme fire season with wildfires scorching over 2.3million acres since January - an area roughly two and a half times the size of Rhode Island.

That’s far more land burned than the state normally sees in a year, and fire season is far from over.

Hotter temperatures spurred by the climate crisis may be partly to blame, according to Rick Thoman, a climate scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, in an article for The Conversation. And with more intense wildfires in the far north, comes risks to communities, ecosystems and the global climate crisis overall.

There were 244 active fires across Alaska on Friday, mostly concentrated along the southern coast near Anchorage and across the wide swath of boreal forest in the middle of the state.

Some fires have been small — under an acre, less than the size of New York city block. But others are absolutely gigantic.

The Lime Complex, a collection of fires in the southwest of the state, has burned through 780,000 acres — twice the size of London. And the East Fork Fire, also in the southwest, destroyed 250,000 acres near the town of St Mary’s.

Alaska’s southwest experienced a lower-than-normal snowpack this year, coupled with a warm spring that dried out the land, Dr Thoman said via The Conversation. In addition, rising temperatures over the past few decades have allowed more plant life to grow — adding more potential fuel for a wildfire to burn through, he added.

The central portion of the state has been especially dry since last spring, Dr Thoman said.

Most of the fires were sparked by lightning – not humans. But a more flammable landscape means lightning strikes could more often lead to fires. And clusters of lightning storms around the end of May and in early July could have sparked some of this year’s blazes, Dr Thoman noted.

Many fires are burning in the boreal forest, the spruce and pine-dominated landscapes that stretch across the world’s northern reaches in Canada, Alaska and Russia. Fire is a natural part of the boreal forest ecosytem, but intensifying fires risk the release of massive amounts of carbon stored in the trees, according to the non-profit World Resource Institute.

Other recent fires, like the East Fork Fire, have erupted in the tundra, land characteristic of the far north that is dominated by low vegetation and permanently frozen ground known as “permafrost”. East Fork was one of the largest tundra fires in state record, the Alaska Beacon reported.

Nancy Fresco, a climate scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told the Anchorage Daily News that tundra fires are growing as the climate crisis heats the landscape and allows potentially more flammable plants like grass to grow, instead of low lichens and mosses.

As the planet gets hotter, a combination of melting permafrost and intensifying tundra fires are expected to release a lot more carbon into the atmosphere. This means a potentially dangerous feedback loop that further heats the planet and restricts humanity’s ability to limit planetary warming, a study last year found.

While these fires pose less of a risk to large numbers of people in the vast expanses of Alaska than in population-dense states like California or Arizona, this doesn’t mean they are without danger.

This week, the Clear Fire, which is burning north of Denali National Park, has prompted evacuations as it spread around a rural community. As of Friday, the fire had burned over 65,000 acres and is just 12 per cent contained.

Even if communities aren’t directly impacted by the flames, smoke can travel for miles. On Thursday, air quality in the Fairbanks area, home to around 100,000 people, was rated as “unhealthy” as wildfire smoke poured into the area.

Earlier this month, small particulate pollution in the air around Nome – a city in the far west so remote that it’s closer to Russia than Anchorage – briefly exceeded an extremely hazardous 600 parts per million (ppm), Dr Thoman said in The Conversation.

For comparison, on Friday, famously pollution-choked Los Angeles had around 59 ppm of small particulate matter.

Beyond the fires, the climate crisis overall is bringing rapid change to Alaska. Parts of it are warming at least two times faster than any other US state, matching trends seen in other polar regions.

The rapid melt of sea ice and glaciers that define much of the far northern landscape will be hard to miss. According to the latest US government climate assessment, average Arctic sea ice has declined about 4 per cent every decade. Between 1994 and 2013, the state lost about 75 gigatons of glacial ice every year (around 10,000 times as heavy as the Great Pyramid of Giza).

As sea levels rise, some indigenous communities like the village of Kivalina on the far northern coast are witnessing their homes fall into the ocean. The village, built on a barrier island, likely has just years left before erosion and rising seas overcome their shores and inundate them.

And more often than before, Alaska is witnessing more intense fire years, where at least two million acres burn, the US government report says, threatening both human health and wildlife.

While Alaska battles its climate woes, the state continues to be a major producer of fossil fuels - the burning of which produces the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide that is driving planetary heating.

During its Eighties heyday, the state was producing around two million barrels of crude per day. While production has dropped off since then, Alaska is still the fourth-highest oil producing state at around 437,000 barrels per day.

Oil is a cash cow for Alaskans. A state-owned investment fund, which takes surplus revenue from oil and gas production, pays out an annual dividend of $1,114 dollars per state resident last year.

With this deep entanglement in the climate crisis — both as an oil producer and frontline to the consequences of warming — Alaskan politics are a complicated affair.

State politics is mainly dominated by the Republican party, not traditionally seen as focused on climate action. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, has stated that climate change is “directly impacting our way of life,” E&E News reported - but has also pushed for fossil fuel development.

Back in 2015, her fellow senator, Republican Dan Sullivan, claimed that “the verdict is still out on the human contribution to climate change”, per Alaska Public Media.

However he voted for a bill amendment that said climate change was real that same year. He also signed his name to a GOP-led proposal that purported to reduce emissions in 2021.

The state’s lone House of Representatives seat is currently up for grabs after the sudden death of long-time Congressman Don Young in March.

One of the leading candidates to replace him is former Alaska governor, and 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. As governor, her administration sought to reduce emissions and respond to the climate crisis, reported the Anchorage Daily News in 2007.

But in 2016, Ms Palin claimed that climate change was a myth, E&E News reported. Her current campaign website calls for expanding oil and gas drilling into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a protected area on Alaska’s northern shore half the size of Florida and home to wildlife like caribou and musk oxen.

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