Jun 24, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Historic wildfires rage across Alaska

A NASA satellite image captures smoke from Alaska's wildfires on Wednesday.
A satellite image captures smoke from Alaska's wildfires on June 22. Photo: NASA Worldview

Alaska is experiencing its worst start to the wildfire season, with more than 1 million acres of land already burned.

Why it matters: Tremendous amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gases are locked away in Alaska's permafrost, but warming temperatures and increased fire activity may be freeing more of these gases by melting this frozen layer.

A screenshot of an NWS tweet on a new temperature record set at Alaska's Kodiak Airport on Wednesday of 75 degrees.
Screenshot: National Weather Service/Twitter
  • Alaska reached the milestone of 1 million acres over the weekend — earlier than any previous summer.

By the numbers: More than 300 wildfires have raged across Alaska in recent weeks and over 100 are still raging, including 30 large fires, as the state faces unusually warm, dry conditions — with temperatures forecast to be "pushing to near 80 degrees" in some parts by Saturday, per the National Weather Service.

The big picture: Most of the fires so far have been in sparsely populated areas south of the Arctic Circle, though officials said Thursday firefighters were battling a blaze in the woods in Anchorage that has burned 13.1 acres and was 30% contained.

  • The Alaska Fire Service "noted that an estimated 500-acre fire north of the Arctic Circle has forced the evacuation of the Arctic Circle campground" earlier this week, Alaska's News Source reports.
  • And dozens of people in the Indigenous Yup'ik villages on the Yukon River had to evacuate after a blaze that threatened their homes earlier this month.

Meanwhile, an air quality advisory was in effect for the southwest and Aleutians as well as the central and eastern interior of the state due to the fires, as of Friday morning.

  • "Fires in the southwest will see increased activity through the weekend, smoke from these fires will impact air quality in the region," the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said in an alert that's effective through Monday.

Context: Human-caused climate change is increasing the risk of wildfires along with warmer, drier conditions.

  • "Over the past 20 years, Alaska has experienced a clear shift toward more frequent large fire seasons with millions of acres burned," the International Arctic Research Center notes.
  • "From 2001–2020, wildfire in Alaska burned 31.4 million acres. Over 2.5 times more acres burned than during the previous two decades."

Go deeper: "Zombie fires" detected in Alaska and Canada, set to increase as climate warms

Go deeper