Thursday, August 10, 2017

Wildfires In Greenland? Yeah, Weird, But Not As Weird As You'd Think

Believe it or not, there have always beem a few wildfires
in Greenland, but this year's spate of fires up
there appears to be a doozy.
August is one principal month in Earth's Northern Hemisphere when you'd expect wildfires.

The summer sun has been beating down on this half of the world, and some forests in Asia, North America and Europe have burst into flames.  

(The problem is especially bad in British Columbia, Canada this year.)

Wildfires have also broken out this summer in a place you wouldn't expect: Greenland.

Yes, Greenland. 

Greenland is mostly covered by an immense ice cap, so you'd think wildfires wouldn't be a problem up there.

But low lying coastal areas are outside of the ice cap, and summer does hit up there.

True, it's not exactly 90 degree beach weather in coastal Greenland, and there's certainly no tinder dry forests anywhere up there, but the snow and ice does briefly disappear along Greenland's shorelines in the summer.

Wildfires can burn through the grasslands, stunted willows, peat and other low vegetation in Greenland, and that's what's going on now. And they do sometimes occur in "summer" weather in coastal Greenland, when temperatures "soar" into the lower 50s.

Kind of like grassfire season here in Vermont during April.

Past history of wildfires in Greenland is vague, but we know they've always occured there. But some evidence suggests that this summer's wildfires are worse than usual. Perhaps worse than ever, but we don't know that for sure.

Satellite data, cited by Scientific American, suggest that this year's wildfires in Greenland are far above what has been experienced in recent years and decades. This does suggest climate change could be playing a role, but we have no proof of that. At least not yet.

Wildfires are almost always bad, and Greenland's are no exception. But there's a unique reason why Greenland wildfires are bad.

Soot from the wildfires can deposit soot on parts of Greeland's vast ice sheet if the wind is right.

If the ice is very clean, it tends to deflect the sun's heat away, and summer melting is slower.

If you add soot or other dark debris and deposit it on the ice, it will draw the sun's heat onto the ice, accelerating melting.

You don't want Greenland's ice to melt, because the added water can raise global sea levels.

On the bright side, an odd weather pattern brought unusual snow and cold to parts of the Greenland ice cap earlier this summer, so overall melting there has not been insanely above normal.

As of early July, the melt season in Greenland was the slowest since 2009, although it's pretty fast by historical standards.

I'm not sure where the 2017 Greenland melt season will end up, but it's aways good to hope the melting stayed slow throughout this summer, despite the odd wildfires.

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