What are ‘zombie fires’ and where on earth are they burning?

Credit: Wildfire Today


‘Zombie fires’ are wildfires that don’t die out when winter comes, but smoulder underground, under ice and snow, and then reignite on the surface some time later.

These zombie fires are burning in the Arctic. The Arctic contains vast stores of carbon, in the ‘peat’ and permafrost. The Arctic Tundra and surrounding region are a store for more than 50% of the earth’s soil carbon, which is apparently more than what is stored in all of the green on the earth! Why is this? Because of the cold temperatures, organic matter decays and decomposes at a slower rate, so the soil stores a lot of the carbon, rather than the carbon being used to grow other vegetation.

Quick reminder: Peatlands are soil that contain decaying carbon based life forms, or organic matter. Permafrost is the thick layer of frozen soil.

Scientists think that the fires that they are seeing in the Arctic and in Siberia right now are actually zombie fires that started last summer. If they are right, these fires have been living and feeding on the carbon and greenhouse gas reserves in the peat and permafrost and have started reigniting at the surface now, after the winter.

Why do they think this? They looked at where fires were burning in the summer and then overlaid satellite images of where they have seen fires emerging now, and they seem to overlap.

Could they be due to something else? Well, they are apparently in areas that are hard to reach, but some of them could be fires lit due to human activity, and some are caused by lightning.

Why is this worrisome? Temperatures in this region are much warmer than they are usually. Scientists say that this area is warming at twice the rate that other places on the earth are.

The higher temperatures are drying out the forests and vegetation in the area, and the fires seem to be able to tap into carbon reserves in the soil, and burn and release more greenhouse gases like methane into the air, hastening the temperature change. Siberia (in Russia) has apparently been recording much higher temperatures than its average – about 6 degrees Celsius warmer than average for the first part of this year! Russia has had its hottest winter ever!

Some scientists think that the real threat is that if these fires burn and release so much of the carbon and methane this will greatly accelerate climate change – none of our measures to halt global warming will have a hope of being affected!

What can we do about this? We can halt the fires caused by human activity, and we can try to adopt more stringent climate change controls and policies.

Adapted from the sources below by Sunaina Murthy





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