The Arctic Is Burning Like Never Before & That’s Bad News For Climate Change

Wildfires blazed along the Arctic Circle this summer, incinerating tundra, blanketing Siberian cities in smoke and capping the second extraordinary fire season in a row. By the time the fire season waned at the end of last month, the blazes had emitted a record 244 megatonnes of carbon dioxide — that’s 35% more than last year, which also set records. One culprit, scientists say, could be peatlands that are burning as the top of the world melts.

Peatlands are carbon-rich soils that accumulate as waterlogged plants slowly decay, sometimes over thousands of years. They are the most carbon-dense ecosystems on Earth; a typical northern peatland packs in roughly ten times as much carbon as a boreal forest. When peat burns, it releases its ancient carbon to the atmosphere, adding to the heat-trapping gases that cause climate change.Dramatic sea-ice melt caps tough Arctic summer

Nearly half the world’s peatland-stored carbon lies between 60 and 70 degrees north, along the Arctic Circle. The problem with this is that historically frozen carbon-rich soils are expected to thaw as the planet warms, making them even more vulnerable to wildfires and more likely to release large amounts of carbon. It’s a feedback loop: as peatlands release more carbon, global warming increases, which thaws more peat and causes more wildfires (see ‘Peatlands burning’). A study published last month1 shows that northern peatlands could eventually shift from being a net sink for carbon to a net source of carbon, further accelerating climate change.

The unprecedented Arctic wildfires of 2019 and 2020 show that transformational shifts are already under way, says Thomas Smith, an environmental geographer at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “Alarming is the right term.”

Zombie fires

The fire season in the Arctic kicked off unusually early this year: as early as May, there were fires blazing north of the tree line in Siberia, which normally wouldn’t happen until around July. One reason is that temperatures in winter and spring were warmer than usual, priming the landscape to burn. It’s also possible that peat fires had been smouldering beneath the ice and snow all winter and then emerged, zombie-like, in the spring as the snow melted. Scientists have shown that this kind of low-temperature, flameless combustion can burn in peat and other organic matter, such as coal, for months or even years.

Because of the early start, individual Arctic wildfires have been burning for longer than usual, and “they’re starting much farther north than they used to — in landscapes that we thought were fire-resistant rather than fire-prone”, says Jessica McCarty, a geographer at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Sources: Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service/European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts; Hugelius, G. et al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 117, 20438–20446 (2020)

Researchers are now assessing just how bad this Arctic fire season was. The Russian Wildfires Remote Monitoring System catalogued 18,591 separate fires in Russia’s two easternmost districts, with a total of nearly 14 million hectares burnt, says Evgeny Shvetsov, a fire specialist at the Sukachev Institute of Forest, which is part of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Krasnoyarsk. Most of the burning happened in permafrost zones, where the ground is normally frozen year-round.

To estimate the record carbon dioxide emissions, scientists with the European Commission’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service used satellites to study the wildfires’ locations and intensity, and then calculated how much fuel each had probably burnt. Yet even that is likely to be an underestimate, says Mark Parrington, an atmospheric scientist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts in Reading, UK, who was involved in the analysis. Fires that burn in peatland can be too low-intensity for satellite sensors to capture.

The problem with peat

How much this year’s Arctic fires will affect global climate over the long term depends on what they burnt. That’s because peatlands, unlike boreal forest, do not regrow quickly after a fire, so the carbon released is permanently lost to the atmosphere.

Smith has calculated that about half of the Arctic wildfires in May and June were on peatlands — and that in many cases, the fires went on for days, suggesting that they were fuelled by thick layers of peat or other soil rich in organic matter.How peat could protect the planet

And the August study1 found that there are nearly four million square kilometres of peatlands in northern latitudes. More of that than previously thought is frozen and shallow — and therefore vulnerable to thawing and drying out, says Gustaf Hugelius, a permafrost scientist at Stockholm University who led the investigation. He and his colleagues also found that although peatlands have been helping to cool the climate for thousands of years, by storing carbon as they accumulate, they will probably become a net source of carbon being released into the atmosphere — which could happen by the end of the century.

Fire risk in Siberia is predicted to increase as the climate warms2, but by many measures, the shift has already arrived, says Amber Soja, an environmental scientist who studies Arctic fires at the US National Institute of Aerospace in Hampton, Virginia. “What you would expect is already happening,” she says. “And in some cases faster than we would have expected.”

By: Alexandra Witze

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National Geographic

Here at the bottom of the world, a place all but free of human settlement, humanity is scrambling one of the ocean’s richest wildernesses. Fossil-fuel burning thousands of miles away is heating up the western peninsula faster than almost anywhere else. (Only the Arctic compares.) Hear National Geographic photographer Cristina Mittermeier share her love and fears for this beautiful place. ➡

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Michigan Man Discovers Strange Glowing Rocks In The Upper Peninsula – Trevor Nace


A Michigan man made the discovery of a lifetime when he stumbled on glowing rocks on the beaches of Lake Superior. The rocks, which he named “Yooperlites” emit an eerie glow, appearing to be partially molten rock. Rintamaki, a gem and mineral dealer, made this discovery after hunting for rocks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, bringing with him a black light. The black light helps illuminate the glowing rocks, which he says litter the Lake Superior beach……

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A Tale of Two Communities – People & Fish – Recovering from Harvey By Larry McKinney


One year after Hurricane Harvey hammered the Texas coast, divergent pictures of recovery and resilience have emerged. The coastal marine communities of fish, shrimp and crabs that thrive along our Gulf coast, are dynamic, resilient and on the mend. The coastal human communities are also dynamic but their resilience is being challenged.

The coastal marine community has an important advantage over coastal human communities — millions of years of evolution driven by hurricanes. Hundreds of hurricanes have entered the Gulf of Mexico since we started keeping track of them, and the Coastal Bend has seen its share. The plants, animals and even the physical landscape of the coast are shaped by hurricanes. It’s survival of the fittest, as the animals so fundamental to ecosystem health — the shrimps, crabs and fish such as red drum and spotted seatrout — all have life cycles that respond well to hurricane-induced stress.

Hurricanes are the giant cement mixer: nutrients and sediments are resuspended, mixed up and flushed from inland reaches into bays and estuaries. Freshwater mingles with saltwater and vice versa. The physical environment also changes; some habitats, like oyster reefs and seagrass meadows, can be buried. Deep pockets scattered across otherwise shallow coastal flats fill in, new ones form, and as the hurricane passes, barrier island passes open and close.

Harvey was different from most hurricanes in that it hit the Texas coast twice. It stalled after landfall, hung around Victoria, then went back into the Gulf over San Antonio Bay, where it sucked up more water, heat and power, moved northeast and slammed into Houston, dumping unforeseen amounts of water over the metropolitan and neighboring areas. The result was really two storms: South Texas had to deal with wind, waves and storm surge, especially from the bayside, but northeast Texas had to deal with massive floods.

The combination of winds, storm surge, low salinity, and low dissolved oxygen had devastating effects on coastal habitats up and down the Texas coast. Floods dumped unprecedented freshwater carrying huge quantities of organics into bays, causing extensive hypoxia. Despite the stress, coastal habitats showed signs of recovery by spring 2018, followed by a genuine bloom through summer.

We saw a burst of new life, particularly in South Texas, as the bays filled with huge schools of juvenile fish. Spotted seatrout grew fat and lazy with so much bounty. Over the next several years the marine ecosystem, as well as anglers and seafood lovers, will reap that bounty. The renewal is reminiscent of a forest fire, which is initially devastating, but recovery brings back a boom of new life.

Our coastal communities also respond with immediacy to hurricanes. While we have not been around so long as the fish and shrimp, we have learned how to survive on the edge of the sea. Our abilities to predict a hurricane’s course and energy has increased impressively, and the emergency responses of coastal leaders and communities are nothing short of heroic. The rush to aid by all after Harvey was inspiring, renewing faith in our neighbors both near and far.

However, as Texas communities continue to recover, our human systems for social support, economic recovery and governance of public resources have faltered. This is particularly evident in South Texas, where we lack the capacity of large cities like Houston. Even there, some neighborhoods are failing to recover from this unprecedented natural disaster.

Our political leadership can muster funding, both short term and for the long haul, but when they leave the coast for their various seats of government and bureaucracy takes over, recovery efforts can break down. Judges, mayors, county commissioners and local leaders have their hands full meeting the immediate needs of their citizens. Adding another “job” to a long list simply does not work.


The sheer complexity of recovery is mind-boggling. There are dozens of federal, state, philanthropic and private programs offering assistance. However, there is no one-stop shop spanning very different recovery issues. Tough issues persist, such as renters who lost housing; individuals struggling with mental health through recovery; communities trying to rebuild schools and bring back families that have moved away; small businesses that need a jumpstart to rebuild local economies on a shrinking tax base; and what to do when critical infrastructure is privately owned and does not qualify for federal assistance.

Acquiring the planning capacity needed to navigate this complexity while making sure communities are building back in a safer, more resilient way adds further burden. Even in a community like Rockport, which has invested in dedicated staff to address these issues, recovery will be hard-fought for years to come. For those communities that could not make such an investment, the road is hard indeed.

To build long-term resilience, we must better understand the complexities of recovery programs and resources; link them with coastal communities through careful planning that addresses future risks; and integrate these efforts with the environment of which we are a part.

Hurricanes are a reality of coastal life, and people are now part of that coastal ecosystem. If we are to live and thrive on our coastal margins we have understand and adapt to that reality and secure the capital needed to plan for our resilient future. We have a lot to learn from the fishes.



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Engineering, Bioplastics Firms Debut ‘Cutting Edge’ Algae Removal Process – Ryan Dailey


Florida’s problem with algal blooms has taken center stage, and efforts to mitigate it are in high demand. A partnership between two engineering and bioplastics companies aims to bring a new type of solution to the market. One Florida county is already trying it out.

Lee County isn’t the only in Florida, or even in the U.S., with an algal bloom problem. Captains for Clean Water co-founder Daniel Andrews has been keeping an eye on the situation locally.

“What we see now is an ongoing red tide bloom. All these nutrients that are coming from the water from Lake Okeechobee, the cyanobacteria bloom, from the on-the-ground perspective, it appears to be compounding and making it significantly worse. What we’re seeing is collapse,” Andrews told WGCU’s Julie Glenn. “And what we need is solutions, long-term solutions, that will allow this estuary an opportunity to recover.”

Lee County is one of the first to use a system of algae removal developed by global engineering firm AECOM, recently named by Bloomberg as the world’s largest. With about $700,000 in funding from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, the county is contracting with AECOM.

Dan Levy, the firm’s vice president, says the technology has been in the works for some time.

“A lot of effort has been put forward on the academia side, on research and studying it. What we’re trying to do now is bringing it to the field,” Levy said. “And that led us to the development of these semi-permanent systems that could be put into these areas that have nutrient-impacted lakes – eutrophic lakes, where we have an excessive amount of nutrients – to go in there and do something that we consider to be short time. Meaning (in) six months, a few years, and we can reduce enough of the nutrients to restore the lake back to its healthier state.”

AECOM has already done work in North Fort Myers and in Cape Coral’s Nautilus Canal.

As Levy explains, the process removes the rich element of algae cells from what’s called the phototropic zone.

“As we pull the water out from this phototrophic zone, it’s going to go into a containment system that has micro-bubbles on the bottom,” Levy said. “So as the water’s there, we’re going to be adding a polymer to it that will allow it to bind up the algae cells. And this microbubble system on the bottom will create essentially a lift to allow these now foreign particles to float up to the top.”

And that, according to Levy, is when the algae can be removed.

“We’re then able to essentially skim off that top layer, and the remaining water is then filtered and returned back,” Levy said.

The recovered algae biomass is put into a storage unit. Then, the question facing Levy and others is, what to do with the algae once it’s extracted? For that, he turned to a company called Bloom, which has been turning algae into biofoam for use in products like shoes and surf board mats.

For Ryan Hunt, Bloom’s Chief Technology Officer, this is the culmination of years of research.

“I co-founded Algix, which is the parent company of Bloom, in 2010. And that was spun off out of research I was doing at the University of Georgia,” Hunt said. “And so, our goal was using algae to treat wastewater and absorb nitrates and phosphates from the water and Co2 from the air –or Co2 dissolved from the water – and convert those pollutants, those nutrients into something of value.”

It was something of an accident, Hunt says, that he discovered algae is well suited to be converted to biofoam.

“Before I started doing this, I was actually making small, little samples that were 100 percent blue-green algae, like spirulina, and was compressing them, applying heat, and making little compressed bars. And those bars essentially exhibited some thermoplastic-like qualities,” Hunt said.

Levy says that conversion process has additional environmental advantages.

“Foam product in the footwear industry – they use a lot of petrochemicals. So every time, and everybody that wears sneakers that have a foam product- that is made with petrochemicals,” Levy said. “So part of our plan and part of our vision is to say- lets reduce the petrochemicals. And we’ve found — and Bloom really has pioneered that — the ability to reduce the amount of petrochemicals in foam, by substituting it with algae.”

And the resulting biofoam doesn’t have the toxic properties that some algae species carry, according to Hunt.

“Detectable levels of microcystin are far below even the Oregon limit for eating algae,” Hunt said. “So theoretically, if you wanted to you could actually eat the shoe and still be in compliance with the Oregon law, but I don’t recommend doing that.”

A spokesman for Lee County says it is currently “working on the best way to quantify” the project’s results. Because algae mitigation efforts in Lee County are being expedited due to severity, the algae harvested from those waterways will not be given to Bloom to convert to biofoam. But, the companies plan to work together on future projects.

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Red Tide Bloom Reaches Southern Pinellas Co. By Trevor Pettiford


Florida Fish and Wildlife said Wednesday that two samples collected showed background-to-low concentrations of the red tide organism.

While the low level of algae is not currently affecting anglers in the area, they are still worried of the possibilities.

“Just being around the water all my life, I’ve seen red tide in here before, but from what I’ve seen, this is a lot worse than it normally is,” said fisherman Amos Phillips.

When Phillips isn’t fishing he is working at the bait shop at the end of the Skyway fishing pier.

Phillips says that fewer people have been out lately, since the red tide threat, and he fears things will get worse.

“Not only is it gonna be in here, but my main concern is how long it’s gonna be here. I mean it could be here a year. And even if it does go out, it’s gonna take a long time for the fish to replenish,” said Phillips. “And my main concern is how long it’s gonna to take recover from this.”

Florida Fish and Wildlife is continuing to collect samples from the coast, with results available here.

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