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Answering Some Burning Questions About Arctic Wildfire

Climate change is leading to bigger, more frequent wildfires in the North American Arctic. These fires will have wide-ranging impacts on northern peoples and wildlife, warns author Ed Struzik.

Written by Gloria Dickie Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
In 2015, Alaska’s Aggie Creek Fire burned for more than two months, scorched about 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) and threatened a nearby oil pipeline.USFS

In 2014, Northwest Territories saw the worst wildfire season since 1975, with flames burning 3.4 million hectares (8.4 million acres). The next year, more than 2 million hectares (5.1 million acres) burned in wildfires across Alaska, second only to 2004’s record-breaking 2.7 million hectares (6.6 million acres). Increasingly, wildfires in the Arctic are getting worse, as lightning strikes ignite tinder-dry plants that burn from the boreal forest to the tundra.

Ed Struzik is a Canadian journalist and author of the forthcoming book, “Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future,” which explores wildfires in the age of climate change across North America and, in particular, Arctic ecosystems.

Though wildfire can be an integral, natural part of healthy forest ecosystems, increasingly powerful and frequent “megafires” are compromising water and air quality in the North, reshaping the forests and tundra and threatening the survival of local people.

Arctic Deeply recently spoke with Struzik about his new book and what he hopes people will come to understand about the dynamics of wildfire in the fragile Arctic.

Arctic Deeply: How did you initially become interested in wildfire and what drove you to write a book about it?

Ed Struzik: When I was a journalist in 2003, I covered the wildfires that were occurring in Western Canada’s national parks – Kootenay, Banff, Jasper. It was sort of the wake-up call for everybody who had never quite seen a fire season like that. They’d seen big fires, but not so many fires so close to communities. Rob Walker, who was a senior manager with Parks Canada, said at the time that maybe this was a climate-change signal and that things were going to get a lot worse. It struck me every year after that it seemed to be one big fire after another. Then in 2008/09, NASA sponsored a huge project in northern Alberta where they brought 200 scientists from around the world to study smoke from the wildfires that were burning in western Canada, and I was invited to come along by the Canadian scientist involved. Right from that point on I thought there was a book in the making.

Arctic Deeply: You dedicate two chapters of your book to wildfires in the Arctic. Why did you feel it was so important to focus on this part of the world?

Struzik: That part of the world is going to be hit hardest from an ecological point of view. Wildfire affects so many of the specialist species in the Arctic, most notably caribou. The more the tundra burns, the more the lichen and the forest burn, the less likely caribou will make it over the hump. I’m sure there will be small, shadow herds in the future, but nothing like the great migrations that we’re seeing now. Once lichen burns, it takes 60, 70, 80 years before it comes back and it’s one of the primary components of caribou’s diet. They can shift to other things, but everything points to an Arctic that’s going to favor more southern species moving north – deer, moose, elk and bison. We’re seeing fires occurring both in the forests and on the tundra accelerating the permafrost thawing that’s already taking place, as well. Once that happens, there’s no going back. It’s like a domino effect – the permafrost thaws and then it unleashes everything that’s been trapped for hundreds of millions of years; a lot of it is chemical compounds, such as mercury, that get into the chemistry of the watershed. That’s having a profound impact on microorganisms, right up to fish, to polar bears and to beluga whales, and ultimately the people who live there.

Arctic Deeply: How are these changes in Arctic fire regimes affecting these northern communities?

Struzik: The big issue for northern people is it’s just going to further destabilize the food insecurity that they have had for the last 30 to 40 years. There will be fewer caribou, which is the primary source of food for an awful lot of people, and once mercury gets into the food chain, if it starts getting elevated in beluga whales, lake trout and Arctic char, these raise a lot of important questions for the future of Arctic peoples.

Arctic Deeply: What did you learn about Arctic fire regimes that you found most interesting?

Struzik: The take-home point for me was that fire acts as catalyst for a lot of the changes we’re seeing in the Arctic and in the sub-Arctic regions where we have boreal forests which are born to burn. You get a hotter, drier climate and bigger fires burning in places like Great Slave Lake in 2014 and Alaska in 2015, which was one of the biggest fire seasons they’ve had. And it’s not just over when the fire goes out. There are lasting effects and there are some really sobering examples. In Wood Buffalo National Park, fire burned so intensely it essentially turned a healthy spruce forest into more of a desert-like ecosystem because it burned all the nutrients out of the soil. No trees will grow back there for decades, if not hundreds of years.

It’s also coming at a time when diseases that we were so concerned about in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan are now migrating northward and they are taking their toll on hundreds of thousands of hectares of trees in the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska. It’s kind of like several things are at play and wildfire is one of those things. The Arctic that we once knew is disappearing very quickly and a new Arctic is unfolding – and wildfire is one of the reasons why. But we really don’t know what the future is going to look like.

Arctic Deeply: What message do you hope people take away from this book?

Struzik: From an Arctic point of view, we’ve concentrated so much on receding sea ice and melting glaciers, and I’m partly to blame for that. For nearly a decade, that’s been the story. But another story is unfolding now; there’s another change taking place on land at the same time, transforming the Arctic in the same way – sometimes catastrophically and sometimes beneficially. I think that people have to understand that we’re going to see some huge ecosystem changes in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. It’s not going to look anything like it does right now. If we’re going to plan for the future and Arctic peoples are going to have a future in the Arctic, we’ve got to be able to create a road map.

How do we get from where we are now to where we hope to be down the road? We’ve pretty much got the receding sea ice and melting glaciers down pat; that’s happening, and we understand that it’s leading to rising sea levels and increasing, more powerful storms, but we’re seeing a similar thing happening now on land that we are only beginning to appreciate.

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