‘‘Zombie fires’ discovered in Arctic as climate change introduces new fuel’

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  • Published
    8th Oct, 2020


Fire scientists are warning of ‘zombie fires‘, or holdover fires, in the Arctic, an area not known for large fires or substantial fire fuel.


What are Zombie fires?

  • Zombie fires occur when a fire from a previous year smolders in carbon-rich peat (organic fuel) underground during the winter, then re-ignite on the surface as the weather warms and the ground thaws the next season.
  • This can lead to even more burning the following year.
  • The process is made worse as peat and permafrost, both carbon sinkswhich act to hold and store carbon, now become a carbon source.
  • Emissions increase as both the burning of vegetation andburning of peat/permafrost release CO2 into the atmosphere, furthering our planet’s warming.

Why is a 'zombie fire' dangerous?

  • Zombie fires are part of a dangerous "feedback loop".
  • The growing number of extreme wildfires in the Arctic are unprecedented in the past 10,000 years.
  • These fires can burn underground for years, thawing permafrost and releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, creating feedback loops resulting in accelerated warming and more thawing permafrost.
  • The combination of wildfires and permafrost thaw can cause loss of life, landslides, floods, and coastal erosion threatening Arctic communities, infrastructure and wildlife.

What needs to be done?

  • Proper understanding: There is need to understand the nature of fires in the Arctic which are evolving and changing rapidly.
  • International cooperation: There is also an urgent need for global cooperation, investment and action in monitoring fires.
  • Traditional learning: The study called for learning from the indigenous peoples of the Arctic about how fire was traditional used.
  • New approaches: New permafrost- and peat-sensitive approaches to wildland fire fighting are needed to save the Arctic. 

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