Are North American Wildfires an Arctic Savior?

2667227166_8e38efd79a For countries across the planet, summer is not necessarily the looked-for time of the year where it is all beach parties and sunbathing. For many of us, our lands celebrate the arrival of summer by bursting in to flame. One would need to be blind, deaf and dumb to have missed the fires burning across North America, in particular California.

But according to a new study by researchers at the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), North American wildfires may prove a blessing to the neighboring Arctic.

Green Options very own Jennifer Lance has been right in the middle of the Californian wildfires. “I wanted to know what road I could take out of our valley if I needed to escape the firestorm … I felt trapped,” she said in her article entitled ‘700 California Wildfires: Why Don’t We Have Enough Firefighing Resources?’ published back in June.

But according to Robert Stone, an atmospheric scientist with the university and NOAA Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and lead author of the study, which appears this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research, “Smoke in the atmosphere temporarily reduces the amount of solar radiation reaching the surface. This transitory effect could partly offset some of the warming caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.”

This study is very early in its life, and the authors make note that the smoke, under the right circumstances, may in fact life more difficult.

But the baseline to their study focuses on the effect that increased matter in the sky, ie, clouds, this time made of smoke, are helping block out the sun’s rays. And though the level of sun that is hindered in its passage to Earth is dependent upon how thick the smoke is, in this day and age, anything helps.

Stone and his colleagues focused their research on recent fires that swept through Alaska and western Canada in 2004. Though short-term, that summer saw a record 10,000 square miles of Alaska’s interior and another 12,000 square miles in western Canada burn. Smoke from these fires not only reached as far away as Greenland and the Svalbard archipelago north of Norway, but as far south as the Gulf of Mexico.

They found that smoke in the atmosphere affected a warming of itself, producing a cooling effect of the surface beneath. “The heating of the smoke layer and cooling of the surface can lead to increased atmospheric stability, which in turn may keep clouds from forming,” said Stone. “We think that this influence of smoke aerosol on clouds further affects the balance of radiation reaching the surface in the Arctic.”

So though no one in their right mind would wish bush/wildfires upon anyone, here again is another occasion of something good coming out of something bad. And to those still caught in fire affected areas, and those already hurt by the fires that have passed through, our thoughts and prayers go with you.


credit: RebeccaPollard at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

More from the GO Network

700 California Wildfires: Why Don’t We Have Enough Firefighing Resources?
Wildfire Ecology Part 1: Almost 4 Weeks Later, 489 California Wildfires Still Burning
Wildfire Ecology Part 2: A Native American’s Thoughts on Forest Fire
California Fires and Climate Change: A Match Made in Hell

1 thought on “Are North American Wildfires an Arctic Savior?”

  1. It will be very interesting to see follow-up research on this. It would seem to run contrary to common sense with adding still more pollutants in to the atmosphere, but blocking solar radiation to the polar regions does appear to be beneficial (from the smoke).

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top