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‘Unprecedented’ Satellite Images Show Vast Stretches of the Arctic on Fire

The satellite photos reveal a startling array of fires north of the Arctic circle.



Arctic on Fire

(TMU) — Consider it the latest shocking sign that we have passed the tipping point into catastrophic, runaway global heating.

New satellite images are depicting the catastrophic manner in which vast stretches of the Arctic are burning up in unprecedented wildfires, rendering the forest and peatlands of the Earth’s northern latitudes a hellscape blanketed under thick layers of smoke.

The satellite photos reveal a startling array of fires north of the Arctic circle, with tremendous blazes laying waste to parts of Alaska, Greenland, and Siberia. Researchers warn that the fires, which come amid the world’s hottest June in recorded history and devastating heat waves worldwide, will make a devastating contribution to already-unmanageable carbon dioxide emissions fueling fast-heating global climate conditions.

Pierre Markuse, an expert in satellite image processing, posted the images showing massive expanses of the Arctic’s delicate virgin land burning in a spectacular fashion.

Alaska has already suffered a chain of wildfires this year that have scorched over 1.6 million acres, or about 2,500 square miles, covering Anchorage in smoke as it copes with record 90-degree temperature.

Wildfires in Alaska (Pierre Markuse/Creative Commons)

Meanwhile in Siberia, fires burning deep into the remote wilderness have been fueled by peat moss that is normally frozen and soggy, but has become a dry tinder due to climate change—a grim sign of things to come, given that peat is carbon-rich organic matter that releases large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere when burned in abundance. As Gizmodo notes, peat fires can also linger through the winter before reigniting during the spring.

Greenland, a country that normally makes one think of cold, icy landscapes, has also been ablaze this past week—the second such wildfire in the past three years and a worrying sign of potentially permanent changes transforming the frozen Arctic into a volatile land of fire.

Wildfire in Greenland’s Qeqqata Kommunia (Pierre Markuse/Creative Commons)

When it comes to the threat from global heating, the once-pristine Arctic is more sensitive than other regions. Smoke particles that cling to snow and land on ice prevent the ice from reflecting sunlight, instead causing it to absorb it and accelerate the warming happening across the Arctic.

The fires also exacerbate the risk of permafrost thawing, which releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that also heats the planet in high concentrations.

Wildfires in Siberia (Pierre Markuse/Creative Commons)

Mark Parrington, a senior researcher at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecast, noted on Twitter that the carbon emissions resulting from fires since the beginning of June amounts to about 100 megatons—a total equivalent to the entire fossil fuel emissions of Belgium in 2017.

The EU’s Copernicus program—which observes planetary conditions on a system-wide level using satellites, air and ground stations—also estimates that the emissions from the northern fires are equal to the carbon dioxide emitted by Sweden in an entire year.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which has 193 member states and territories, likewise sees the northern blazes as “unprecedented” and likely to contribute to the vicious heating cycle the earth is spiraling into.

In a statement highlighting the urgency of climate threats, the intergovernmental organization said:

“Since the start of June, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) has tracked over 100 intense and long-lived wildfires in the Arctic Circle. In June alone, these fires emitted 50 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is equivalent to Sweden’s total annual emissions. This is more than was released by Arctic fires in the same month between 2010 and 2018 combined.

Although wildfires are common in the northern hemisphere between May and October, the latitude and intensity of these fires, as well as the length of time that they have been burning for, has been particularly unusual, according to CAMS Senior Scientist and wildfires expert, Mark Parrington. 

The ongoing Arctic fires have been most severe in Alaska and Siberia, where some have been large enough to cover almost 100 000 football pitches, or the whole of Lanzarote. In Alberta, Canada, one fire is estimated to have been bigger than 300 000 pitches. In Alaska alone, CAMS has registered almost 400 wildfires this year, with new ones igniting every day.”

The WMO statement concluded:

“The northern part of the world is warming faster than the planet as a whole. That heat is drying out forests and making them more susceptible to burn. A recent study found Earth’s boreal forests are now burning at a rate unseen in at least 10,000 years.”

By Elias Marat | Creative Commons |

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