Parched. Scorched. Burnt. Words not typically used to describe the Arctic. Over 400 lightning-caused fires have burned more than 5 million acres in Alaska this summer -- an area larger than the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined and five times the number of acres burned in all the other states in the United States this year.
On August 7, Alaska's fire season was officially declared the second largest since records began 76 years ago. 192 fires are still burning. This is not the first time that fires have severely scorched Alaska, but this year is notable because it is the third time within this century that fires have ravaged the tundra and boreal forests, causing millions of acres to ignite. In 2004, 6.6 million acres burned, ranking first for most acres burned in the state. Theoretically, that was a once in 50 year event. But the following year, flames consumed 4.7 million acres making 2005 another devastating fire season, far exceeding the annual average of 1 million acres.
Our Earth's life support system reduced to numbers. These environmental records -- quantifying and categorizing every facet of our human life-dependent ecosystems -- smashed, shattered, broken. How to describe this trajectory of environmental transformation? The data speaks the truth, and the truth is climate change is happening, and is happening faster than we thought.
Fires are a normal part of the Arctic ecosystem and contribute to habitat vitality and renewal. But the fires currently burning are different. Record-high temperatures, a record-low snow season and an unimaginable number of lightning strikes, 46,000 in three days in June, created the conflagration that has lasted more than two months. Normally, approximately 110,000 lightning strikes occur during Alaska's summer.
Two arctic tundra fires in Southwest Alaska started this year's fire season. Tundra covers the northern and western reaches of Alaska where there are few trees and the subsoil -- called permafrost -- is always frozen. Tundra becomes soft squishy water-logged Earth during the summer when the top layer of the soil thaws. Short plants, a few inches above the ground and resistant to cold, are the primary vegetation. Intact, the organic soil insulates the permafrost. Tundra stores huge amounts of carbon that is hundreds to thousands of years old. Decreased precipitation, specifically snow, has parched the tundra. The largest tundra fire in recorded history occurred in 2007 north of the Arctic Circle -- the fire burned for almost three months and marked the first time fire had burned in the area in at least 5,000 years. The tundra fire of 2007 released as much carbon as the tundra had stored in the previous 50 years. Carbon once stored now adds to the carbon emissions warming our planet.
The human impact of these fires is severe. Engulfed by smoke for weeks in June and July, health warnings told people to avoid going outside. Aniak, Chuathbaluk, Tanana, Hughes, Napaimute, Crow Village -- they are the names of some of the dozens of indigenous Alaska Native villages surrounded by flames. No roads connect these villages to safety. Located along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers, the navigable rivers of Alaska's interior where people hunt and fish, access to these villages is typically only by small 10-seat passenger planes. In July, the smoke was so thick flights could not always evacuate residents so evacuations occurred by boat. In July, more than one dozen fires surrounded the village of Tanana. Some communities have been threatened by fire since June.
Driving north of Fairbanks, interior Alaska's largest community, in the middle of July, several plumes of smoke rise. Black bruises stain the forested mountain slopes. A fire crew rests by the side of the road, one of several brought from outside of Alaska to combat the danger. Trained fire crews, however, have not been sufficient to respond to the wildfires. The use of military personnel has been essential.
These fires not only threaten lives, but are another signal of dramatic ecosystem changes caused by a warming planet. Scholars struggle to create a climate model that can accurately predict these changes. But this complex web of non-linear environmental change is hard to quantify. Fire releases not only carbon into the atmosphere but ash, which is now believed to be accelerating the melting of Greenland's massive ice sheet. The black ash now covers white ice -- the white is essential to reflect the sun's radiation back into the atmosphere. Instead, the black increases the Earth's absorption of heat from the sun. We are witnessing the fast forward of geologic time.
On August 31, President Obama will travel to Alaska for a historic visit and speak at a climate change conference hosted by the U.S. State Department. His visit offers Alaskans a tremendous opportunity to share the beauty of our state and these alarming changes, adding his voice to the urgent need for action to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions and also adapt. Follow his visit, here.