This week’s fire, however, is on another level.
“This is the largest wildfire we know of,” says Stef Lhermitte, a satellite expert at Technische Universiteit in Delft, Netherlands, who did some of the initial mapping of the fire. “For a lot of people, it’s been a bit of discovery on the go.” The fire was first spotted by a local aircraft on July 31.
What’s striking about the Greenland fire is that it fits a larger trend of rapid change across the northern reaches of the planet. A 2013 study found that across the entire Arctic, forests are burning at a rate unseen in at least 10,000 years.
By American standards, the Greenland fire is small, covering around 1,200 acres(about two square miles) — about the size of midtown Manhattan. The massive Lodgepole Complex wildfire that scorched eastern Montana in July — the largest fire in the country this year — was more than 200 times bigger. But for Greenland, a fire of this size is so unusual that even scientists who study the huge island don’t really know what to make of it.
The Danish meteorological service (Greenland is technically an autonomously governing part of Denmark) said it has no experts who specialize in Greenland fire. The European Commission has tasked its Emergency Management Service with a rapid mapping of the region of the fire, in part to help local officials assess the risks to public health. Mark Parrington, a meteorologist with the European government, said on Twitter that he “didn’t expect to be adding Greenland into my fire monitoring,” adding that he may need to recalibrate his air pollution models to account for the smoldering way that fire tends to burn in permafrost soil.
Riikka Rinnan, an ecologist at the University of Copenhagen, said her research team had started work earlier this summer on how potential fires could impact Greenland’s tundra, but didn’t expect one so soon. Jessica McCarty, a satellite data expert at Miami University in Ohio, said she’s planning to have one of her students construct what might be the first-ever comprehensive history of fires in Greenland.
And yes, as you might expect, climate change probably made this whole thing more likely.
“Everything we know suggests that fire will increase in the Arctic,” climate scientist Jason Box, whose work focuses on Greenland, told me. “It’s fair to say that it’s part of the pattern of warming. We should see more such fires in Greenland.”
Though west Greenland, where the fire is burning, is a semi-arid region, rainfall and temperatures there have been increasing, helping to foster more dense vegetation. Box says this is part of the “shrubification” of the entire Arctic as temperatures warm and the growing season lengthens. Denser vegetation is making large fires more likely, in combination with the simultaneous tendency for longer and more intense droughts and the rise in thunderstorm likelihood due to erratic weather patterns.