Aug 15, 2017

Greenland Is Still Burning, But The Smoke May Be The Real Problem

Greenland
by
Rebecca Hersher
,
NPR
The wind direction from the fire in western Greenland has largely blown smoke toward the island's ice sheet and away from communities. Photo: Pierre Markuse, Flicker
The wind direction from the fire in western Greenland has largely blown smoke toward the island's ice sheet and away from communities. Photo: Pierre Markuse, Flicker

More than two weeks after they were first spotted, wildfires on the western coast of Greenland are still burning, worrying local residents and drawing the attention of scientists.

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The wind direction has largely blown smoke toward the island's ice sheet and away from communities, including the international airport at Kangerlussuaq, where travelers said they could smell the smoke last week. But while the wind direction is good news in the short term, it may spell danger in the long term, says Jessica McCarty, an assistant professor of geography at Miami University in Ohio.

"The [thing] that I'm concerned about for Greenland is the black carbon," she says, "You can think of it as the part of smoke that's black. The soot. And when black carbon deposits on ice — something that's very dark in color on something that's very white — that then speeds up the melting of the Greenland ice sheet."

Melting ice drives sea level rise and is one way wildfires near glaciers can exacerbate the effects of climate change.

McCarty has been studying satellite and other data about the Greenland fires for weeks now and notes that the area appears to be home to mostly low vegetation like moss on rocks, with no trees or tall grasses. She says all signs point to this being a peat fire.

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As for whether these rare Greenland fires are being caused by climate change, McCarty says it probably contributes, but she needs to study it more.

"The Earth is complex. Our climate system is complex. Rarely can we say it's one thing that caused this. But in this example, we do know that it was not expected for the permafrost to be at this condition so soon," she says. Permafrost is perennially frozen soil. Climate models had predicted that it would take until 2050 for the permafrost to melt as much as these fires suggest it has.