Roundtable: The Greenland Wildfire
Scientists around the world have been using
satellites to monitor a
wildfire in Greenland. In a place better known for ice, just how
unusual is this fire? NASA Earth Observatory checked with remote sensing
Jessica McCarty, and
Stef Lhermitte to find out. Mottram is a climate scientist at the
Danish Meteorological Institute; Lhermitte is geoscientist at Delft
University of Technology; and McCarty is a geographer at Miami
How unusual is this fire?
Mottram: Many of my colleagues at the
Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) were a bit surprised at first, but
it was clear talking to both the Greenland weather forecasters (they do
three month rotations to the airport at Kangerlussuaq) and to some of
the older guys that fires do happen reasonably regularly, particularly
in the west and south. However, they are not always reported either
officially or in the news unless the fire is close to a settlement or
affecting shipping or flights. This fire seems to be a fairly large one,
but there has been no systematic attempt to gather evidence or data on
Greenland's fires - at least not at DMI. I have never heard of anyone
else in Denmark doing it either, so it is a bit hard to be more precise
McCarty: This is a hard question to answer, and I keep telling media
reporters the same thing: we need to have the wildfire history analyzed
before we know how unusual this is. I can tell you from the global
wildfire science community that I am a part of, we would have never
thought the we would need to make a wildfire history to understand the
fire regime in Greenland. So that part is unusual.
Lhermitte: I completely agree with Jessica. I used to be a wildfire
remote sensing scientist (finished my PhD on African wildfires in 2008),
but I have shifted since then to the cryosphere community (including
some work on Greenland's ice). It was a big surprise to me to see both
worlds combined on Monday when I first noticed a Greenland fire tweet.
Now it is clear that fires have occurred before, but that we basically
lack a good record. MODIS gives us a glimpse, but the sensor certainly
is not perfect, and the record is short. Based on what I have seen, the
2017 fire is the biggest one on the MODIS record, but the record is
sparse and incomplete.
I know you have done some looking
Landsat satellite data for evidence of past fires in Greenland. What
have you found?
Lhermitte: I looked back at the
record of MODIS
active fire detections since 2002 and made a quick
overview map. In the map below, fire detections are marked with
circles. Higher confidence fires are red; lower confidence fires are
yellow. In most years, the satellite flags about 5 pixels as having
active fires. In 2000, it flagged about 20 pixels. There were over 40
pixels flagged in 2017, so this year has been
exceptional. Note: Most of these detections are probably
campfires - not uncontrolled wildfires. There have been two big wildfires:
the one happening now and
one in August of 2015.
McCarty: Overall, 2017 appears to be a larger fire season than any year
since 2001. But from a remote sensing point of view, this is a difficult
place to study the fire regime using satellite-based active fire
detections (because of cloudiness and other factors). The Landsat/Sentinel-2/Deimos,
etc. burn scar images will be more helpful.
Mottram: I have not looked into any of the specific data, but I have
heard anecdotes about fires in Narsarsuaq close to the DMI ice service
reconnaissance station in the south of Greenland, in the Kobbefjord
close to Nuuk, and just to the north of Sisimiut near this one. There
was also a large fire in 2008 near Eqi, close to Ilulissat, which the
Greenland press reported was caused by a tourist burning rubbish but
failing to put the fire out.
One of you said on social media that
you think the fire may be burning through peat. Are you sure? How can
McCarty: The fire line has not moved
much in comparison to a wildfire in a grassland or forest. However, Stef
awesome Sentinel-2 animation that shows the fire line moving some. I
still think it is peat with a mix of grasses and moss (given the Google
Earth Pro and Deimos imagery), but how deep the peat is difficult to
ascertain. A recent study in the Qaanaaq region
(north of where these wildfires are) found five times more peat in the
soil distribution and soil content than previously reported. Also,
historically, peat houses were constructed in this area of Greenland,
which means there are peat deposits nearby. Short grasses with
underlying peat is my working hypothesis for now since we are onto day
11 of the fire.
Mottram: I am not really a soils expert, and Greenland really suffers
from having little detailed mapping of this kind. Also, Greenland is
pretty diverse from north to south and east to west. There are high
rocky mountains and permafrost. The south has sheep pasture and even
some areas of forest; the north has large areas with low vegetation
cover. However, there are also extensive areas of peat cite in the
Do you think this fire was triggered
by human activity or lightning? Do we know what triggers most fires in
McCarty: I still can't find any
indication that this was lightning, so it must be human activity.
Greenlandic/Danish news reports are reporting that hikers and tourists
should stay from this area, so I would assume that humans are on the
Mottram: I can't really say for sure. Lightning is not impossible, but
neither is human activity. It is the middle of the
hunting/fishing/berry-picking/hiking season, and this area is known for
reindeer. In fact, the Greenland press had an interview with a reindeer
hunter who had to turn back from visiting because of the smoke in the
fjord. Actually, the hunter wanted the fire put out by the authorities,
so he could go hunting there.
What has the weather been like in
Greenland during the last few months? Has it been unusually hot or dry
where this fire is burning?
Mottram: It has been a very dry
summer in the south but also quite dry in this region, and the fire was
preceded by some relatively high temperatures. My climatologist
colleague John Cappelen tells me that the DMI station at Sisimiut
measured an precipitation anomaly of -30.0 millimeters for June and
-20.7 millimeters for July compared to the mean precipitation of
1981-2010. In other words, there was almost no rain in June and a bit
more than half the usual rainfall in July. There have also been some
warm days in Sisimiut (or at least at the airport where the weather
station is), particularly towards the end of the month. The monthly
average temperature was 7.1 Celsius compared to a 1961-1990 average of
6.3 Celsius in July. The trend has continued into August as well.
This fire got me wondering why there
are ice-free areas along Greenland's coast where vegetation grows. Are
these relatively new features? How do you think they got there?
Lhermitte: I am no absolute expert
here, but these ice free coastal areas are mainly the result of the
bedrock topography, where the coastal Greenland areas are much more
elevated than the interior of Greenland. Since the last glacial maximum,
the ice sheet has partly retreated and exposed more land. If the ice
sheet would retreat further, we would see more of the inner, lower land
Mottram: The ice sheet is more or less in equilibrium with the climate,
so it is where it is because that is where the glaciers can flow. During
the last glacial maximum, the ice sheet extended far out onto the
continental shelf and connected (in the north west) with the Laurentide
ice sheet in North America. Then, with warming after the last glacial
period, the ice sheet retreated. (That is, more ice was melting and
calving away than was being replenished by snowfall.) The ice sheet has
been more or less stable in its present extent for about the last 10,000
years (with some smaller advances and retreats responding to more local
There's an Unprecedented
Wildfire in Greenland. That's Bad News for the Arctic.
Across the entire Arctic,
forests are burning at a rate unseen in at least 10,000 years.
11 August 2017
By Eric Holthaus
This story was originally published by
Grist and appears here as part of the Climate
This is going to sound weird, but there's a wildfire right now in
west Greenland. You know, that huge island of mostly ice? Part of it is
There's been nothing
even close to this since reliable satellite-based fire detection
records began in Greenland in 2000. Very small wildfires can evade
satellite detection, and old-timer scientists who have worked in
Greenland for decades say that micro-fires there aren't necessarily
This week's fire, however, is on another level.
"This is the largest wildfire we know of,"
says Stef Lhermitte, a satellite expert at Technische Universiteit in
Delft, Netherlands, who did some of the initial mapping of the fire.
"For a lot of people, it's been a bit of discovery on the go." The fire
spotted by a local aircraft on July 31.
What's striking about the Greenland fire is
that it fits a larger trend of rapid change across the northern reaches
of the planet. A 2013
study found that across the entire Arctic, forests are burning at a
rate unseen in at least 10,000 years.
By American standards, the Greenland fire is small, covering around
1,200 acres (about two square miles) - about the size of midtown
Manhattan. The massive
Lodgepole Complex wildfire that scorched eastern Montana in July
largest fire in the country this year - was more than 200 times bigger.
But for Greenland, a fire of this size is so unusual that even
scientists who study the huge island don't really know what to make of
The Danish meteorological service (Greenland is technically an
autonomously governing part of Denmark) said it
has no experts who specialize in Greenland fire. The European Commission
has tasked its Emergency Management Service with a
rapid mapping of the region of the fire, in part to help local
officials assess the
risks to public health. Mark Parrington, a meteorologist with the
European government, said on
Twitter that he "didn't expect to be adding Greenland into my fire
monitoring," adding that he may
need to recalibrate his air pollution models to account for the
smoldering way that fire tends to burn in permafrost soil.
Riikka Rinnan, an ecologist at the University of Copenhagen, said her
research team had started work earlier this summer on how potential
fires could impact Greenland's tundra, but didn't expect one so soon.
Jessica McCarty, a satellite data expert at Miami University in Ohio, said she's
planning to have one of her students construct what might be the
first-ever comprehensive history of fires in Greenland.
And yes, as you might expect, climate change probably made this whole
thing more likely.
"Everything we know suggests that fire will increase in the Arctic,"
climate scientist Jason Box, whose work focuses on Greenland, told me.
"It's fair to say that it's part of the pattern of warming. We should
see more such fires in Greenland."
Though west Greenland, where the fire is burning, is a semi-arid
and temperatures there have been increasing, helping to foster more
dense vegetation. Box says this is part of the "shrubification" of the
entire Arctic as temperatures warm and the growing season lengthens.
Denser vegetation is making large fires more likely, in combination with
the simultaneous tendency for longer and more intense droughts and the
rise in thunderstorm likelihood due to erratic weather patterns.
Box says he saw a fire in west Greenland back in 1999. "It's pretty
interesting for Greenland, people don't think about it as a place where
that's possible - nor did I until I saw it with my own eyes." Once he
realized he was watching a wildfire, he said, "It was like, what the
heck? What is going on?"
What set off this blaze? The scientists I spoke with aren't sure. The
primary cause of Arctic wildfires is lightning, but a lightning storm in
Greenland would have been news. Thunderstorms typically need warm, humid
air for fuel, and both are in short supply so close to the world's
second largest ice sheet.
According to John
Kappelen, a Danish meteorologist, the region surrounding the fire
has had well below average rainfall since June, making wildfire more
"This time of year, everybody's going out and picking berries and
fishing and hunting," says Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist at the
Danish meteorological service who conducts frequent fieldwork in
Greenland. Maybe someone in the area set a fire that grew into the big
blaze. Greenland's second largest town, Sisimiut, with a population of
about 90 miles away.
Mottram says that if the fire is burning in peatland, it could rage for
weeks. If the winds shift, soot from the fire could be transported
up to the ice sheet, where it
might speed local melting in the coming years by darkening the
surface of the ice, helping it to absorb more energy from the sun. This
is something that scientists like Box and Mottram are spending their
careers studying, but up to now, they thought that virtually all the
soot that's making the bright white ice darker was transported there
from Canada or Russia. Now, a new source may be emerging.
Should wildfires like this one increase in frequency, we may have just
witnessed the start of a new, scary feedback loop.
Massive Greenland wildfires
could mark a new era in global warming
The largest wildfire on record
has been raging across western Greenland for more than a week - a
development that is particularly striking given that 80 per cent of the
country is covered by thick ice. But satellite images have shown a
wildfire stretching across an area of up to 6 square miles - producing a
1.2 mile high smoke plume in the process - about 90 miles to northeast
of the town of Sisimiut. Unprecedented level of wildfires Wildfires are
unusual on the icey island - large ones in particular - where
temperatures rarely reach 10C even in the height of summer. But
Greenland has recorded an unprecedented 40 fires so far this year - more
than double the previous record of 19 set in 2015.
Experts believe the surge in the number and size of wildfires is likely
to be due to rising temperatures drying out the peat. The peat is
exposed as the permafrost melts, leaving large areas susceptible to
fires. Too soon to blame climate change Scientists say it is too early
to definitely link the surge in wildfires to global warming - but many
believe it could be the case. And they are watching the situation very
closely to see if the bout represents a new milestone in global warming
- to add to the 1C we have seen since 1850 and the increase in storms
and extreme weather in recent years - or whether it is simply a freak of
nature. "The jury is still out on the significance of this. But it is
fair to say scientists find this very unusual and will now be tracking
wildfires in Greenland for increases signs of climate change impacts,"
said wildfire expert Professor Jessica McCarty from Miami University.
"If these types of fires become more common in Greenland in the next
three to ten years, then this will signal a shift in fire regimes.
Scientists will then be able to say with some confidence that 2017
marked a significant turning point for wildfires near the second largest
body of ice in the world," Prof McCarty told i. Experts believe the
surge in the number and size of wildfires is likely to be due to rising
temperatures drying out the peat. The peat is exposed as the permafrost
melts, leaving large areas susceptible to fires. Scientists say it is
too early to definitely link the surge in wildfires to global warming -
but many believe it could be the case. Is this a new milestone? And they
are watching the situation very closely to see if the bout represents a
new milestone in global warming - to add to the 1C temperature rise we
have seen since 1850 and the increase in storms and extreme weather in
recent years - or a one-off event. "The jury is still out on the
significance of this. But it is fair to say scientists find this very
unusual and will now be tracking wildfires in Greenland for increases
signs of climate change impacts," said wildfire expert Professor Jessica
McCarty from Miami University. "If these types of fires become more
common in Greenland in the next three to ten years, then this will
signal a shift in fire regimes. Scientists will then be able to say with
some confidence that 2017 marked a significant turning point for
wildfires near the second largest body of ice in the world," Prof
McCarty told i.
Largest ever wildfire in
Greenland seen burning from space
The largest wildfire on
record has been captured in new satellite images across western
The images show a 'sizeable fire' about 90 miles (150 km) northeast of
the town of Sisimiut.
The wildfire is estimated to stretch between 1.9 to 5.8 square miles (5
and 15 square km), with smoke reaching up to 1.2 miles (2 km) high.
Wildfires are unusual on the island, where temperatures rarely reach
10C (50F) in the height of summer, and 80 per cent of the land is
covered by thick ice.
But Greenland has seen an 'exceptional' number this year, with as many
as 40 fires reported so far - more than double the previous record of 19
set in 2015.
Experts have now linked two of these fires to peat that may have dried
out as temperatures have risen.
Global warming has meant that across Greenland there is now less surface
water than in the past.
This creates peaty soil and makes vegetation more susceptible to fire.
Satellite images have revealed a number of smoke plumes, forcing
officials to warn hikers and tourists to stay away from the remote
Local police say billowing smoke from a blaze on the uninhabited island
of Nassuttooq, covering an area of up to 6 square miles (15 square km)
the largest wildfire recorded - 'could result in people losing their
'Usually when a wildfire is smouldering like that it's because there's a
lot of ground-level fuel, carbon organic matter; that's why I assume
that it's peat,' wildfire expert Professor Jessica McCarty, from Miami
University, told BBC News.
'The fire line is not moving, the fire is not progressing like we'd see
in a forest fire, so that means it's burning whatever fuel is on the
Melting permafrost due to rising temperatures is the likely cause of
this outbreak, Professor McCarthy added.
Previous research around the town of Sisimiut shows that permafrost is
degrading at a rapid rate in the region.
Locals say they have seen a number of 'soil fires' before, especially in
the last 20-30 years.
Researchers are now studying satellite image records to look for
evidence of previous outbreaks.
'The only record I found is the MODIS active fire record,' said Dr Stef
Lhermitte from Delft University in the Netherlands.
'It's a satellite that
measures the temperature of the surface and can locate hotspots from
'I think that fires have been there before but what's different is that
this fire is big, in Greenlandic terms; that is unusual.
'It's the biggest one we have in the satellite record.'
More fires have been detected in 2017 in Greenland than in the previous
15 years combined, Dr Lhermitte said.
Whether the fires are the result of climate change is still up for
debate, and scientists will have to wait until the blazes have burned
out to confirm the theory.
'This peat is less than 70km (44 miles) from the ice sheet,' said
'It's a little difficult to believe that it would be degraded already
without increasing melting and higher temperatures.
'But as a scientist we can't say it's definitely climate change until
we've done the analysis after the fire.'
Greenland Fires Ignite
Climate Change Fears
The fires are stoking
worries about the vast island's thawing permafrost.
Wendel 11 August 2017
In a real clash of fire and ice, a
massive wildfire in southern Greenland has captured the world's
At the end of July, a couple of NASA satellites detected hot
spots in Greenland that indicated fire, said Mark Ruminski, a
team leader for a hazard mapping system of the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration. But fires are unexpected in
Greenland, so he and his team thought it might be an error in
Then a civilian pilot snapped pictures of
a wildfire near Sisimiut, the second-largest city in Greenland.
When clouds cleared a few days later, NASA's Landsat
and the European Space Agency's Sentinel-2 satellites captured
photos of the largest of the fires from high above.
Although ice covers nearly
Greenland, fires do occasionally break out on the ice sheet's
margins. Hearing of the new sightings, Stef Lhermitte, a
geoscientist who specializes in remote sensing at Delft
University of Technology in the Netherlands, reviewed the past
17 years of data from NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging
Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite and threw together a quick
analysis on Twitter to help give context to the situation.
Parrington, an atmospheric chemist who works with the European
Union's Copernicus Earth observation program, also tweeted an
analysis of carbon
dioxide emissions that indicates spikes of fire
activity in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
No Fuel, No Fire
the current fire's cause remains a mystery, peat from thawed
permafrost could be its fuel, said Jessica McCarty, a geographer
at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who specializes in
geospatial analysis of wildfires.
Permafrost, or permanently frozen soil, lies under
multiple meters of an 'active' soil layer that thaws seasonally.
But in certain areas, when ice within the thawing permafrost
layer melts, it can expose peat,
a material that forms after decomposing plants get smashed down
The peat is made up of organic matter, most notably carbon,
McCarty said. Given how readily it burns, she added, it's almost
like one giant charcoal briquette.
McCarty suspects the fire's fuel is peat for several reasons.
First, the fire isn't moving, like it would in a forest (not
that there are any trees to speak of in this region of
Greenland, she noted). In addition, the fire's smoke is white,
indicating damp fuel, like freshly thawed permafrost.
The fire's smoke is white, indicating
damp fuel, like freshly thawed permafrost.If
the fire is being fueled by thawed permafrost, there may be
underlying climate change implications, McCarty continued. "The
climate change [connection] is that there would be no fires here
in Greenland if there were no fuel, and the only way that
there's fuel is if the permafrost is [thawed]."
this is very disturbing to me," McCarty said, because the fire
indicates significant permafrost degradation "sooner than
[scientists] thought it would happen." Researchers project
significant permafrost loss in Greenland by the end of the
century. Not 2017, she said.
scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks modeled the
fate of Greenland's permafrost under a changing climate.
Researchers study permafrost because of its potential to thaw
and subsequently release carbon
- in the form of methane
and carbon dioxide
- into the atmosphere. Permafrost makes
up about 80% of Greenland's land that's not perpetually buried
The researchers wanted to know how much climate change would
contribute to permafrost degradation, which is the decrease in
the thickness of the permanently frozen soil. Their models
revealed that by the end of the century, parts of Greenland
could warm 1.99C and that the active top layer of soil could
extend downward an additional 44 centimeters, meaning that there
would be less ice locking in carbon.
"Most of the terrestrial [ice-free] portion of Greenland is at
risk of permafrost degradation,"
wrote Vladimir Romanovsky, a permafrost researcher at
the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a coauthor on the
research. Especially in southern Greenland, where the fire
currently burns, permafrost degradation has already begun,
Natural Versus Unnatural
Greenland is already warmer than the northern region naturally,
Romanovsky said, so its permafrost is more vulnerable to begin
with. Because the Little Ice Age ended in the past 150-200
years, some warming, and thus degradation, is natural.
will add to the problem and accelerate [thawing] of permafrost."
contributing to permafrost degradation include glacial meltwater and
human activities like constructing roads and
buildings. Rising temperatures from the past 20-30 years of anthropogenic
climate change have probably contributed as well. And
when the ice in the ancient soils melts, it can expose peat to
drier conditions - a perfect recipe for fire,
Then, in a feedback loop,
"fire itself will add to the problem and accelerate [thawing] of
permafrost," he continued, which will cause more ice in the
permafrost to melt and drain away and lead to further drying.
Fire Meets Ice
poses another threat, McCarty said. It could release black
carbon, which might fall onto the nearby ice sheet
and accelerate its melting. Burning of biomass like peat, among
other things, releases black carbon, which is much darker than
ice. Black carbon deposited onto ice sheets lowers the ice's
ability to reflect sunlight and boosts its heat absorption,
McCarty said, potentially speeding up melting.
As of Tuesday, the wind was blowing smoke from the fire over the
ice sheet, McCarty said. She has already started analyzing how
much black carbon it might deposit.
Unfortunately, there's no telling when the fire may end, McCarty
said. The longer it burns, the more it exacerbates the black
carbon problem. With little to
no rain in the forecast, Greenland's options are limited, she
continued. Officials could either attempt to transfer water into
extremely remote areas to quench the flames or wait until the
year's first snow, which will most likely fall next month.
Greenland is Still Burning, but the Smoke may be
the Real Problem
15 August 2017
The wind direction from the fire in western Greenland has
largely blown smoke toward the island's ice sheet and away from
Source: Landsat 8 image of 12 August 2017 (US Geological Survey)
More than two weeks after they
were first spotted, wildfires on the western coast of Greenland are
still burning, worrying local residents and drawing the attention of
The fires are roughly 90 miles northeast of the second-largest
Greenlandic town, Sisimiut, as
we previously reported.
There are currently three growing hot spots, according to an
analysis of NASA data
Stef Lhermitte, an
assistant professor of geoscience and remote sensing at Delft University
of Technology in the Netherlands.
Nina-Vivi Andersen, a reporter for Nanoq News in the capital,
Nuuk, has lived in Greenland her whole life and says she has never heard
of a wildfire there.
"It's very unusual," she says, and the timing is particularly bad
because reindeer hunting season just opened on Aug. 1.
Satellite data suggests that a campfire or a cigarette likely started
"We have been talking with hunters and stuff like that, and they are
very sad about the wildfire," she says. The hunters' concerns have
prompted a minor firefighting effort by one of the two regional
governments in the area of the blazes. Andersen says the government in
Qaasuitsup municipality, which includes the
World Heritage Site town of Ilulissat,
has sent about 15 firefighters to assess the fires and see what might be
done to protect the reindeer territory.
The wind direction has largely blown smoke toward the island's ice sheet
and away from communities, including the international airport at
Kangerlussuaq, where travelers said they could smell the smoke last
week. But while the wind direction is good news in the short term, it
may spell danger in the long term, says
Jessica McCarty, an
assistant professor of geography at Miami University in Ohio.
"The [thing] that I'm concerned about for Greenland is the black
carbon," she says, "You can think of it as the part of smoke that's
black. The soot. And when black carbon deposits on ice - something
that's very dark in color on something that's very white - that then
speeds up the melting of the Greenland ice sheet."
Melting ice drives sea level rise and is one way wildfires near glaciers
can exacerbate the effects of climate change.
McCarty has been studying satellite and other data about the Greenland
fires for weeks now and notes that the area appears to be home to mostly
low vegetation like moss on rocks, with no trees or tall grasses. She
says all signs point to this being a peat fire.
"[Peat] is a good fuel source," she explains. "It's essentially like the
peat logs you buy for fire pits or for fireplaces." When peat burns, the
flames don't run across the landscape quickly the way they do in grass
or forest fires. Instead, peat fires smolder down into the ground, so
the boundaries change more slowly and they can burn for a very long
Some peat fires have
been known to persist through winter months, smoldering away under the
Peat fires also release a lot of greenhouse gasses. "Peat is basically
pure carbon. So, yes, when it burns it releases a lot of CO2," says
McCarty.As for whether these rare Greenland fires are being caused by
climate change, McCarty says it probably contributes, but she needs to
study it more.
"The Earth is complex. Our climate system is complex. Rarely can we say
it's one thing that caused this. But in this example, we do know that it
was not expected for the permafrost to be at this condition so soon,"
perennially frozen soil. Climate models had predicted that it would take
until 2050 for the permafrost to melt as much as these fires suggest it
McCarty and other scientists say they're reviewing decades of satellite
data about Greenland - studying fire patterns in one of the last places
they expected to.
Fire is uncommon in Greenland, yet smoke plumes rose
from Greenland south of Disko Bay in August 2017
Greenland is best known for its ice, but some
remote sensing scientists found themselves closely tracking a sizable
wildfire burning along the island's coast in August 2017. The fire
burned in western Greenland, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) northeast
Satellites first detected evidence of the fire on
July 31, 2017. The
Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and
Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on Suomi NPP
daily images of smoke streaming from the fire over the next week.
Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 captured this more
detailed image of the fire on August 3, 2017.
While it is not unprecedented for satellites to observe fire activity in
preliminary analysis by Stef Lhermitte of Delft University of
Technology in the Netherlands suggests that MODIS has detected far more
fire activity in Greenland in 2017 than it did during any other year
since the sensor began collecting data in 2000.
Fires detected in Greenland by MODIS are
usually small, most likely campfires lit by hunters or backpackers. But
Landsat did capture imagery of another
sizable fire in August 2015. According to Ruth Mottram of the Danish
Meteorological Institute (DNI), neither DNI nor other scientific groups
maintain detailed records of fire activity in Greenland, but many
meteorologists at the institute have heard anecdotal reports of fires.
The blaze appears to be burning through
peat, noted Miami University scientist
Jessica McCarty. That would mean the fire likely produced a sharp
increase in wildfire-caused carbon dioxide emissions in Greenland for
noted atmospheric scientist Mark Parrington of the European
It is not clear what triggered this fire, though a lack of documented
lightning prior to its ignition suggests the fire was probably triggered
by human activity. The area is regularly used by reindeer hunters, and
is not too far from a town with a population of 5,500 people.
The summer has been quite dry. Sisimiut saw almost no rain in June and
half of the usual amount in July. That may have parched dwarf willows,
shrubs, grasses, mosses, and other vegetation that commonly live in
Greenland's coastal areas and made them more likely to burn.
Fires emit a soot-like material called
black carbon. It is likely that winds will transport some of this
material east to the ice sheet where it will contribute to a line of
darkened snow and ice along the western edge of Greenland's ice
sheet. This area is of interest to climate scientists because darkened
snow and ice tends to melt more rapidly than when it is clean.
Central (2017, August 7)
There's a Wildfire Burning in West Greenland Right Now. Accessed
August 11, 2017.
Al faerdsel i Nassuttooq og Amitsorsuaq frarades. Accessed August
(2017, August 10)
A large wildfire has been burning in Greenland for more than a week.
Accessed August 11, 2017.
Observatory (2017, August 10)
Roundtable: The Greenland Wildfire.
Online (2017, August 9)
It's fire, not ice in Greenland, as tundra fires sweep across
northwest coast. Accessed August 11, 2017.
Today (2017, August 7)
Wildfires are burning in Greenland. Accessed August 11, 2017.