Wildland Fire

As the Arctic warms, the nature of wildland fires in the region is changing.

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Fire is a natural part of Arctic ecosystems. But as the Arctic warms, the nature of wildland fires in the region is changing. The fire season is longer with more frequent and intense fires. The Arctic Council is monitoring and addressing the changing face of wildland fire and working with Arctic communities to respond.

How does climate change affect Arctic wildland fires?

Longer fire seasons

Climate change is expected to further increase the length of the fire season, possibly create drier conditions and increase the number of lightning strikes1.

Hidden fires

Fires in peat can smolder for months, years, or even decades. These holdover, or "zombie" fires emit a great deal of smoke and are difficult to extinguish1. However, these fires can also be self-limiting if they warm and re-wet the peat around them through melting of permafrost.

More fires

According to the Global Wildland Fire Information System2, the number of fires has more than tripled since 2018 in much of the Arctic.

In some areas where wildland fires were previously uncommon, more and larger fires are expected in the future1.

More intense fires?

As Arctic temperatures rise, many areas of boreal and Arctic forests are drying out, creating ideal conditions for larger, more intense fires. But in some areas, we may see a shift from coniferous (pine) forests to deciduous (e.g. birch) forests, which can reduce fire intensity1.

The feedback loop: climate change and fires

The Arctic is warming at more than 3 times the rate of the rest of the world.

… making it possible for industry and agriculture to move further north.

Most wildland fires are sparked by human activity, even in the Arctic.

A warming Arctic has more lightning strikes, further increasing the likelihood of fires.

Once a fire starts, climate change can create conditions for especially intense fires on dry peatland and forests.

Arctic fires feed further warming. Burning peat creates big, smoky fires that release greenhouse gases, which trap even more heat

Black carbon from soot settles on snow and ice, absorbing the sun’s heat and increasing the rate of melting...

…Creating a warmer Arctic, and even greater fire risk.

In June 2019, Arctic wildland fires emitted 50 megatons of CO2, equivalent to Sweden's total annual emissions and more than the past eight Junes combined. Kasha Patel, NASA Earth Observatory
Fire in Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Pre-constructed fuelbreaks helped firefighters successfully control the fire. Photo: Chena IHC

For people who live in the Arctic, it’s personal:

  • Smoke degrades air quality and can damage human health
  • Ecosystems and local food sources are altered
  • Fires can threaten life and property
  • Black carbon and other emissions from fires further accelerate warming

The Arctic Council is working with Arctic communities to prevent, respond to, and adapt to wildland fires in the Arctic.

How we’re addressing Arctic wildland fires

Applying Indigenous Knowledge and Local Knowledge

Arctic communities have lived with fire for millennia, and they’re sharing their expertise. The Gwich’in Council International is leading much of the Arctic Council’s work to understand, respond to, and adapt to wildfires.

Edward Alexander
Edward Alexander
Co-Chair, Gwich’in Council International
Gwich’in burn grass during early springtime in the North, when the meadows have thawed but there is still snow around the timber line. This was traditionally important because it increased the biodiversity of plant species growing in that area, fertilized the soil so that plants were more nutritious and increased the land’s carrying capacity of animals. There would be an increase in rabbits, and moose would have two or three calves instead of just one. It is also a carbon-neutral practice to burn the land during that specific time due to the low amount of carbohydrates on the soil. It is important to understand that if that same fire was lit just a month later, it could be extraordinarily destructive and destroy the rich structures of those plants, interfere with migrating animals and more.
It is important to gather information like this to understand how people have worked with fire in the past to better manage what we have going forward. It is not enough to talk about management regimes without talking about Indigenous management and techniques that have been successful in the North for thousands of years. [...] These practices don't need to be historical. Indigenous knowledge doesn't need to be historical. If we can find and understand more examples of Indigenous knowledge about wildfire, I'm absolutely certain it will be useful to all of us in a circumpolar and global context as the fires become not only an effect of climate change, but a global driver of it.