Smoke at the North Pole
For the first time, wildfire smoke is detected at the North Pole
For the first time ever, scientists have detected smoke at the North Pole.
Remote doesn’t come close to describing the North Pole. The closest land masses are Nunavut, Canada and the most northern reaches of Greenland, which are over 500 miles away. And neither Nunavut nor northern Greenland are going have fires big enough to make much smoke. They are continuously laden with ice and snow and beset with freezing temperatures most of the year.
The scientists theorize that the massive fires in Siberia in July and August of 2019 are the source for the smoke. The fires resulted from very warm weather—over 86 degrees Fahrenheit—dry thunderstorms and high winds. The fires were probably larger than they may have been, as attempts to extinguish them were ceased. The dozens of fires consumed 6.4 million acres of forests, an area almost as large as the state of Maryland.
At first, the scientists were actually looking for something else, the residue from the June 22 eruption of Raikoke, a volcano among the small Kuril Islands northeast of Japan. The volcanic dust and smoke would not have been seen by the naked eye. The researchers were using highly sensitive devices to observe aerosols in the troposphere and stratosphere, the two layers of the atmosphere closest to the Earth. While looking for the volcanic dust, they detected smoke that bore the signature of wildfire smoke.
The researchers started their observations at the end of September, 2019. They found the smoke layer in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere and to be about six miles thick The smoke persisted over the North Pole throughout the 2019-2020 winter and did not begin to dissipate until late April, 2020.
The scientists theorize that the Siberian fires were large enough to force their smoke up into the tropopause, the boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere, which is about five or six miles above sea level in the northern region of the globe. (It is higher around the equatorial region.) The scientists published their results in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics on October 22nd.
Wildfires returned to Siberia in 2020, following an intense, record-breaking heatwave in June, with some Siberian towns reporting triple-digit temperatures for the first time. By then, longstanding drought conditions had dried out peat soils where about half of the fires occurred, making them susceptible to ignition. Peat fires can burn longer and release lots more carbon than forest fires. In 2021, the wildfires of Siberia were larger than all the other fires in the world combined.
2020 was a record breaking year for ozone depletion in the Arctic. The extreme polar vortex is thought to be the cause of the depletion, yet the smoke may have exacerbated the ozone reduction. There is no reason to believe that the fires in Siberia will not return in the coming years. The catchphrase to 99.7% of research papers, “more research needs to be done,” is apt in this case to see what effects the Siberian fires will have on the North Pole and the rest of the Arctic.
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