For months, Siberia has been experiencing extreme heat due to a combination of persistent sunny weather and human-caused climate change. In addition to producing Arctic temperatures that cracked 100 degree in June, the heat has fueled an enormous outbreak of wildfires, including fires on tundra underpinned by permafrost—normally frigid soil that is likely becoming even less frozen this year.

 

Orange dots show locations of fires detected in the week prior to July 6, 2020.

This rash of fires on landscapes that are typically too cold, wet, and icy to burn is raising alarms for ecologists and climate scientists, who fear it’s yet another sign that the Arctic is undergoing rapid changes that could tip off a cascade of consequences both local and global.

If fire becomes a regular occurrence on Siberia’s thawing tundra, it could dramatically reshape entire ecosystems, causing new species to take over and, perhaps, priming the land for more fires. The blazes themselves could also exacerbate global warming by burning deep into the soil and releasing carbon that has accumulated as frozen organic matter over hundreds of years. (Read about how melting permafrost could supercharge climate change—in a very bad way.)

“This is not yet a massive contribution to climate change,” says Thomas Smith, an environmental geographer at the London School of Economics who has been tracking the Siberian fires closely. “But it’s certainly a sign that something different is happening.”

 

More superheated fires

 

This is a view of Siberia's tundra fires from space.