Climate change appears to be making conditions more favourable for forest fires. And forest fires appear to be accelerating global warming.
Scientists are struggling to determine how, and how quickly, this circular process works.
Residents in Cold Lake, Alberta, and Yellowknife, NWT, are playing host to a fleet of NASA research aircraft designed to examine the effect increasing numbers of boreal forest fires are having on the Arctic climate.
Flying daily through northern-latitude forest fires, the aircraft are examining the composition and direction of their smoke plumes. Coupled with measurements from NASA satellites, the data will allow researchers to more accurately predict changes resulting from forest fires.
“The mission is the most extensive field campaign ever to study the chemistry of the Arctic’s lower atmosphere,” said a NASA release.
Following a common NASA practice, the project is endowed with a distinctly hyper-syllabic title: Arctic Research of the Composition of the Troposphere from Aircraft and Satellites (ARCTAS).
Preliminary mission research shows that massive forest fires in North America and Eurasia are causing the melting of Arctic ice sheets and permafrost, and the disappearance of snow due to deposits of black carbon.
“The Arctic is a particularly vulnerable place, subject to dramatic amplification of environmental change,” according to the ARCTAS website.
The fleet of three NASA aircraft are equipped with special equipment that collects outside air in sealed canisters. The canisters are sent to a laboratory at the University of California for testing.
Lab technicians can then determine whether the air is clean or polluted, and can even determine whether the pollution was caused by industrial processes or wildfires.
The process involves “(t)racking one trace gas at a time to uncover the mysteries of the Arctic atmosphere,” said researcher Jennifer Collings in an online blog.
ARCTAS closely mirrors an earlier NASA project that examined the effects of smog and greenhouse gases on California air.
Not solely a NASA-run show, ARCTAS makes use of a diverse international research effort. Balloons from Environment Canada, flights from Greenland, and scientists from France and Germany are all playing a role to determine the real-time effects of forest fires.
Warning that Arctic warming would have “global consequences,” the US space agency highlighted the need for international co-operation to understand climate change in northern regions.
“The impetus for ARCTAS is partially due to the large international co-operation due to the International Polar Year,” according to the ARCTAS website.
Running from early 2007 to 2009, the polar year is an international co-ordinated effort to understand the Arctic and Antarctic from the perspective of various scientific disciplines.
ARCTAS itself is a component of Polarcat, a Norway-based international research effort examining the chemistry and effects of pollution plumes as they are carried into the Arctic.
Ironically, recent increases in boreal forest fires have themselves been attributed to global warming.
Last year, a team of researchers at the University of Arizona found that longer, drier seasons caused by global warming were creating ideal conditions for forest fires.
In an added twist, melting permafrost might further contribute to global warming by releasing underground stores of methane.
Arctic climate change poses definite challenges for northern residents.
“Northern communities face changes in their natural environment and in their natural resources and food systems, changes of rapidity and magnitude beyond recent experience or traditional knowledge,” states a report by International Polar Year representatives.