Ecologists believe that Alaska’s wildfires are not hazardous to Alaska’s ecosystem, but may pose an even larger, more global effect on climate change as carbon is released into the atmosphere from the permafrost.
Fish Creek Fire in Alaska Underground But Not Gone
Though the flames from the Fish Creek Fire in Alaska have faded away to streams of billowing smoke, ecologists believe that the wildfire, which has seen moved underground, may have a devastating effect on climate change.
As the wildfire continues to burn underground, the heat will lick away at the permafrost, releasing carbon from dead organic material that has been frozen for years. It’s a simple, but terrifying chain of events that may contribute to global warming.
What’s more is the Fish Creek Fire is not the only wildfire threatening the permafrost. Alaska wildfires have consumed nearly 5 million acres after a lightning storm in June sparked around 300 fires.
An Undying Fire Thanks to the Ice: How Permafrost Affects Wildfires
The amazing part about Alaskan wildfires is the very thing that makes them so harmful, which is the fact that they don’t die out when the flames stop above the ground. Instead, the fires have a large resource of dried, dead organic material waiting underground to be burned away.
Called duff, the organic material is composed of leaves, grass, pine needles, and even trees. The duff falls onto the forest floor, accumulating over time to pile rather high in some places. Thanks to Alaska’s glacial temperatures, the duff never completely decomposes as it would if it had been in a warmer state.
Instead, it rests on a ground layer called permafrost, insulating the permanently frozen ground from the warm outside temperatures. But, as the blazes burn the duff, the permafrost has less insulating material, making it more vulnerable to the hotter temperatures.
Ecologists believe this is even more problematic because the permafrost is already unstable due to a leap of 3 degrees Fahrenheit over the last half century.
The Wildfires Will Release Carbon and Affect Climate Change
Though Alaska and other places in the subarctic have seen their fair share of fires, this fire season has started off with over 11 million acres burned away between fires in Alaska and Canada. The intensity, frequency, and duration of the fires has been severe this year. Ecologists and climatologists have warned that the permafrost may release the carbon that is has trapped for thousands of years, creating a massive climate change.
Some scientists say that the ecosystem may be able to compensate for this extra carbon as new plant life absorbs it. However, others believe this is a sure sign of additional climate change that will go beyond any effect of human emissions.
Both theories are valid, but for now, neither can be conclusively proved. One thing ecologists can agree on is that Alaska’s wildfires are already affecting the ecosystem in Alaska, even if the effects to climate change have not been seen.