Zombie fires are the fires which burn under the surface of the earth. They get their name from the fictional creatures called zombies (humans who are dead yet their bodies continue to move and infect other humans to turn into one of them) as these fires continue to burn even after the surface fires are put out and they continue to spread through the region. The zombie fires are found under the Permafrost i.e. the layer of ice and snow over the soil in the Arctic region. The soil of the Arctic region is rich in peat (a type of coal) and the zombie fires slowly burn within this space between the Permafrost and the soil.
During the summertime when the Permafrost in the region starts to melt, the zombie fires get exposed to the vegetation of the arctic tundra and this leads to massive wildfires in the region. When the Permafrost starts to thaw they release methane which is highly inflammable and causes the fires to move quickly. The Arctic fires generally burn between May and October and reach its peak between July and August. The main reason for this melting of Permafrost is global warming. As the carbon emissions are reaching a high point causing the Earth's temperature to increase resulting in the thawing of the snow and ice it is exposing the slow-burning peat to the vegetation of the region.
These zombie fires can burn underground for years and the thawing permafrost will release more methane and carbons into the atmosphere aggravating more fires in the region and these fires will increase the temperature of the surrounding and will cause more thawing and lead to the release of more carbons which will again cause more fires. This cycle creates a feedback loop.
Zombie Fires in the Arctic Region
Although zombie fires have been burning for years, they have been much more in news this year as the world is experiencing massive levels of zombie fires in the Siberia region of Russia. Siberia has faced the problems of zombie fires but never before to this magnitude. With an area of 13.1 million kilometres, Siberia makes up 77% of Russia's landmass and 9% of the world's surface. As of July 29, 2020, more than 3.2 million hectares of land was under fire in the Siberian region. The smoke emitted from the Arctic region is as large as 1/3 of Canada. The fires burning this year have surpassed the records of the previous year. Since January 2020 Siberia has been facing a record high level of heat. If compared to the previous year the total emissions were 50 megatons of CO2 while this year the total emissions have been over 244 megatons of CO2 (as per reports in September 2020) and that is a huge number; it's equivalent to the emissions released by economies like Malaysia or Egypt. One of the unique situations about the Siberian fires is that normally if there are forest fires only the trees and shrubs burn, but in Siberia, due to the huge peat deposits in the soil, it's actually the soil that is burning.
Impact of the Fires
Along with Siberia, there have been other hotspots to be hit with zombie wildfires like Northern Alberta with fires spread in 1,351 miles and parts of Canada. Many scientists are worried if this trend continues, all the tundra vegetation and habitat will reduce to dust and the snow in the Arctic will melt causing serious repercussions around the world. The climate change has reduced the groundwater levels and has caused low water levels in many rivers causing a drought-like situation. The Arctic region is warming up at a rate that is twice than the average rate of global warming in the rest of the world. The fires when at its peak were so intense that the smoke could have been seen even from space. Although there are many causes for the starting of the fires like extremely dry ground due to the reduced groundwater level, higher than average temperatures and strong winds but the biggest cause of the fires were the human activities like pollution and global warming that is causing the climate change. One of the biggest causes of worry during these recent fires was that a lot of fires spread to the regions that were previously considered as fire-resistant. These fires are constantly increasing the temperature of the region. If this trend continues this would slowly melt the snow and disturb the entire ecosystem of the region. Another problem that the melting of the snow would result in would be exposing the vegetation to even further wildfires resulting in the feedback loop.
The zombie fires are nearly impossible to extinguish directly since they burn underground and are difficult to locate under the thick layer of snow and ice. One of the effective methods is to extinguish them indirectly by not just reducing the rate of carbon and greenhouse emissions but removing a lot of emissions from the environment. Another method to stop these wildfires was to dig deep into the soil and cut off the fire spreading to the peat coal reserves which are yet to be touched by the fires. The latter was tried however it did not deliver a lot of success as it was very difficult to locate the fires. For the short term, the countries via global cooperation can use their money and resources into countering these fires, however, for the long term our best bet would be to reduce the pollution we create and reverse this trend of increasing carbon emissions as fast as we can. Climate change and global warming are as important as the economic development of the country, and people need to be made aware of the importance of sustainable development.
This article has been authored by Varad Sirsikar, a learner at Maharashtra National Law University Mumbai.