Tundra fires sweeping across Alaska – and the carbon dioxide they throw into the atmosphere – are expected to increase as the Arctic warms, the tundra dries, and thunderstorms spark blazes in landscapes primed to burn.

That’s the warning from scientists who will discuss their ongoing findings at this week’s meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Albuquerque, NM, New Scientist reported on July 30.

A paper on some of the ongoing work, by researchers from the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., had been presented at the American Geophysical Union meeting in December.

This week, the researchers are to detail some of the effects they’re seeing from tundra fires. Among them:

  • The most severely burned terrain absorbed 71 percent more solar radiation than normal, warming faster and losing a layer of permafrost 5 to 10 centimeters deep.
  • As tundra burns and emits carbon, permafrost melts and releases more CO2 into the atmosphere – a classic positive feedback for climate change.

“You’re … exposing more old carbon that was stored in that freezer (as organic material) and is being allowed to decompose and reintroduce itself to the atmosphere,” MBL researcher Adrian Rocha told New Scientist.

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