Climate change brings lightning-caused fires to the North Slope

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

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.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

4 thoughts on “Climate change brings lightning-caused fires to the North Slope”

  1. There is no such thing as Climate Change/Global Warming, and you can see Russia from Point Barrow!

  2. (I dropped a part from my last post — the lightning was making the most beautiful blue glow in the sky, held down by the very low clouds of the snow storm, that’s why we didn’t recognize it. Going through the ice crystals of snow it was far more “blue” then the normal white hue of lightning in a rain storm)

  3. >Warmer air means more energy is
    >available for thunderstorms
    >where, once, it was just too

    That seems to be far too simple of an explanation.

    While I understand the scientists are trying to get a sound bite in, I’m certain even in summer on the North Slope it’s warmer then when I saw lightning during a snow storm just outside of Boston last December.

    Took us a few minutes to figure it out…first we thought tree limbs and wires problems from the heavy wet snow.

    When explanations are at odds with people’s observations, doubt is raised.


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