Two years ago residents of Barrow, on Alaska’s North Slope, saw something they had never seen on the North Slope–lightning. Climate change is bringing lightning, and lightning-caused fires to northern Alaska in quantities never before seen in recorded history. Here is an excerpt from an article at usnews.com.
When it comes to weather, it’s hard to impress the Iñupiat people living at the northernmost tip of our nation. Frozen landscapes, cutting winds, and white-outs are normal in Barrow, Alaska, a small town on the Arctic Ocean about 1,300 miles from the North Pole. But two summers ago, even the oldest residents were startled by something new: flashes of light and powerful booms coming from the sky.
“These people had never seen a lightning storm at Barrow before,” says Gaius Shaver, an Arctic ecologist from the Marine Biological Laboratory’s Ecosystems Center in Woods Hole, Mass. “They didn’t know what to think.”
With temperatures warming an average of 3 to 5 degrees over the past half-century, the climate on the North Slope of Alaska is in transition. Warmer air means more energy is available for thunderstorms where, once, it was just too cold. And more lightning is bringing another dramatic change to the tundra: Wildfires.
“The decade of the 2000s was, by far, the biggest for fires on the North Slope in half a century,” Shaver says. Thirteen wildfires torched nearly 260,000 acres over the decade—more than all the fires recorded and area burned on the North Slope since 1950. And as global warming continues, tundra wildfires are fully expected to increase, both in frequency and acreage burned.
The implications of fire in the Arctic—what Shaver calls “a new disturbance regime”—are profound. “Fire may be the trigger that shifts the North Slope landscape into a new state,” Shaver says—one vastly different from the frozen, treeless tundra of today. And it’s one that may feedback positively to global climate change.