Greenland, a place well-known for its enormous glaciers and freezing temperatures, is experiencing a rather unusual phenomenon in the form of a large wildfire currently blazing through its western region.
Scientists have spotted a “sizable fire” using satellite evidence, around 90 miles northeast of the town of Sisimiut on July 31, according to the Earth Observatory at NASA. On the same day, a passenger plane saw the same fire, Gizmodo reports. Over the next week, NASA satellites took daily images of thick smoke spiraling up from the tundra, in what appeared to be multiple fires.
Based on recent data from the European Union-based Copernicus Emergency Management Service, the largest of the fires looks to have burned through several thousand acres. Stef Lhermitte, a snow and ice researcher at Delft University of Technology, said, “There are fires in Greenland, but it’s not an African Savannah.”
Lhermitte did a quick analysis of the satellite data on fires in Greenland.
As far as I can see, the current fire is the biggest one recorded by satellites since 2000. I think it’s the biggest on record.
He added that 2017 has been a remarkable year for fires in the region, with MODIS finding evidence of wildfires far more than any other year since 2000.
Other scientists have been studying this sudden increase in fire activity. Merritt Turetsky of the University of Guelph said, “There is no evidence that fires have been common in Greenland so a large fire like this is unusual.” Jessica McCarty of Miami University stated that the fires seem to be “occurring on areas of degraded permafrost.”
Permafrost is ground that is permanently frozen. It holds plenty of dead plant matter that can easily become combustible if thawed and dried. Scientists have recorded a rise in permafrost fires in Alaska, Canada and Siberia – places where wildfires are not a common occurrence. Factors contributing to these are land use shifts, human-caused climate change, and troublingly, humans setting fires.
It’s unclear what triggered the wildfires in Greenland, but Lhermitte said lightning may have been the ignition source. “There’s a second fire 50 kilometers south [of the largest one] which is much smaller, and started on the same day, he said. “Based on that I would assume it may be lightning but it’s difficult to say.”
Authorities continue to monitor the situation, and hiking and hunting have been closed for areas surrounding Nassuttooq and Amitsorsuaq.