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Fire in Greenland Has Perplexed Observers Worldwide

On July 31, 2017, satellites noticed a large column of smoke arising out of Greenland’s permafrost areas, which after being imaged by an Operational Land Imager (OLI), gave data that identified the phenomenon as a fire over the course of the week (NASA, 2017). With data revealing that the source of the smoke could be coming from multiple sources, the fire in Greenland is among the biggest ones so far in recent history.

The baffling part is that the fire in Greenland is happening in a place almost fully under ice cover.

The location of the fire is in the western region of Greenland that is precisely about 90 miles north-eastwards from the city of Sisimuit. The fire in Greenland is surprising many observers, because most of Greenland is under ice, with pronounced areas of vegetation primarily in coastal areas, which is composed mostly of moss, grass, shrubs and dwarf willows.

The thing that adds to the amazement is that the extent of overall melting in Greenland in the summer season in 2017 is the lowest extent since the summer of 2009 (University of Colorado, 2017).  Also documentary evidence on wildfires in Greenland points to the contrary, with not much evidence or instance of wildfires in Greenland in recent history (M. Stone, 2017). The fire in Greenland, due to its scale would thus have to be an aberration that could only have occurred due to a freak event.

In a critical observation, Jessica Mc Carty, a geographer at Miami University, is reported to have told ‘Wildfire Today’, an online news portal, that the fires seem to be occurring on areas of degraded permafrost having peat. Permafrost is rock, soil or sediment deposits that are frozen and can contain high levels of methane, carbon dioxide and carbon black.

Permafrost thus can contain combustible substances, but the precise method of ignition if this were to be the cause is uncertain. According to ecologists, in the recent past, there have been a good number of permafrost fires recorded in Siberia, Canada and Alaska that have been commonly attributed to fires started by humans, climate change, and changes in land use patterns (M. Stone, 2017). An investigation would be necessary though to know about the precise cause of melting and the ignition that followed which caused the fire in Greenland.

For thousands of years in the present Holocene Epoch, sea levels have remained stable, allowing human settlements in coastal regions along with the proliferation of coastal ecosystems. However, climate change i.e. the warming of the planet due to the trapping of solar heat by increasing levels of greenhouse gases, might contribute to sea level rise. Sea level rise is caused in part by the physical expansion of the seas due to their warming and also due to ice on landmasses or in polar ice caps that melt and eventually find their way to the oceans due to the rising temperatures.

This brings the polar ice caps of the Earth into inquiry over the possible effects of melting ice worldwide. Climate change can also have innumerable other effects, and the fire in Greenland, which is an almost fully ice covered habitat, has alarmed and intrigued climate change watchers over whether this could be an antecedent of climate change.

Notwithstanding the fire in Greenland, the landmass is showing signs of heating up, with significant melting ice observed in recent years for the island. The rate of global temperature rise and climate change is said to be accelerating with the passage of time. The warming of the Earth followed by melting ice worldwide is well illustrated in Greenland in the example of Disko Bay, located nearby Ilulissat, Greenland, where a massive ice sheet is continuously adding about 300 gigatonnes of ice every year into the ocean, which makes the ice sheet the single largest source of sea level rise due to the melting of ice (NASA, 2017).

The melting ice in Greenland could in part be attributed to dark algae, which multiply as the temperature climbs. The whiteness of ice makes it reflect most of the sunlight hitting Greenland, but the blackness of the dark algae present absorbs the heat of the Sun, which increases the rate of liquefaction of the melting ice.

This is a relatively new subject, and a research project called Black and Bloom led by a team of scientists is to investigate this (I. Johnston, 2017). The volume of ice frozen is Greenland is so large that even a moderate amount of melting ice in Greenland could severely threaten coastal populations.


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