15 June 2008

Scandinavia ablaze

The Scandinavian countries of Norway and Sweden are experiencing some significant wildfire activity this season, particularly during June.

Earlier this month in Sweden:

Eight helicopters and some 150 firefighters, home guards and other volunteers were Tuesday combating a large blaze that has raged for several days in central Sweden, reports said. The blaze near Hassela, some 350 kilometres north of Stockholm, was one of two blazes in the region...

A week later:

Gusting winds are fueling forest fires raging near LÀmmetorp outside of FinspÄng in east central Sweden...

Dry ground and hard winds on Tuesday caused a number of other forest fires...in south central Sweden....

    [T]he fires which have been raging for twelve days outside of Hassela in northern Sweden are now under control.

Even more recently in Norway:

Norway may seek foreign help to extinguish its biggest forest fire since World War Two, which has been raging for five days...

The fire has burned out about 5,000 acres, or 2,000 hectares, near the town of Arendal, about 260 km (160 miles) southwest of Oslo.

Norwegian media reported smoke had wafted as far as Denmark, some 120 km (75 miles) away across the Skagerrak strait.

The fire broke out after an unusually warm and sunny start to June. No lives have been lost but holiday houses have been destroyed and dozens of people evacuated.

The image was captured from the real time imagery from the NASA MODIS Terra satellite on 11 June 2008 and shows the Arendal fire. A small cluster of hotspots can be seen, along with the smoke plume extending towards Denmark. The image is a true colour image roughly 270 x 170 km, with north pointing about 20-25 degrees to the left. Oslo, Norway's capital, is just off-image to the left of the 'N' in NASA. I have slightly tweaked the image to attenuate the 'murkiness' of the original.

Compared to the sizes of wildfires which occurring the United States and other regions of the world, these fires are relatively small. But they are obviously straining the the resources of the local firefighting agencies. The largest fire since WW2 is something to take seriously.

These fires, along with those seen in Russia during April, raise an interesting question in light of a recently published paper suggesting that melting Arctic ice has a warming impact several hundreds of km inland, as well. As suggested over at Hot Topic, this is consistent with the pattern of temperatures observed this past winter with the record ice melt. These unusually warm temperatures likely played a role in producing the enhanced fire weather conditions driving the current fires. Are the carbon reservoirs within circumboreal forests at risk through increasing fire activity from the melting polar ice (as well as from the potential of melting permafrost)?

The last few years in Alaska and Yukon have seen some very severe fire seasons (e.g. Here and here). A paleo-climate record of fire activity in these regions [PDF] is more unclear. The fire activity noted this year, in both Scandinavia and Russia, could also be a sign. Obviously, one data point doesn't prove anything one way or the other. The Scandinavian fires could just be the result of short-term weather fluctuations. It will be interesting to see what happens in other northern areas this year as well. Wildfire activity is expected to be above normal this summer [PDF] in much of northern North America. The impacts of any fires need to be carefully monitored as well.

Is this case overstated? Quite possibly. Wildfire probably won't kill the forest by itself, but it could weaken the ecosystem enough to allow something else to do the job. Possibly another one of the myriad of unexpected impacts of humanity's reckless CO2-enhancement experiment. It's all happening now, and humans will know where we stand in a few years time. We can only hope it is not too late.

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