Skip to content
Arctic Circle

The Arctic on Fire: Intensifying Wildfires and Climate Change as a Top Security Threat in the North

By Barry Scott Zellen, Research Scholar, Department of Geography at the University of Connecticut

As a former resident of Yellowknife, capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT), I was glued 24/7 to the ominous news out of northern Canada this past summer as unprecedented wildfires engulfed the entire region in the most severe fire season ever, culminating in the full evacuation of all 22,000 residents from Yellowknife commencing 16 August as a menacing wall of fire and ash took aim at the capital city.

As NWT Fire Information Officer Jessica Davey-Quantick described to Canada’s Maclean’s magazine, “By the end of September 2023, the NWT had recorded 303 fires, burning over four million hectares. That’s about the size of Denmark, and well beyond the record set in 2014, colloquially known as the Summer of Smoke, when 3.4 million hectares burned.” She noted the season started “hot” in May “when over 4,000 people were forced to evacuate” in “the first of 14 evacuation orders over the course of the summer;” in late July, the territorial government “had imposed the largest fire ban in its history, covering the entirety of the North Slave and South Slave regions;” and by August, there were “over 200 fires burning throughout the territory. Winds gusting up to 60 km/h, unseasonable temperatures in the high 20s and drought conditions combined to send multiple fires hurtling toward communities in the South Slave, devouring everything in their paths in a matter of hours.”

By the end of September 2023, the NWT had recorded 303 fires, burning over four million hectares. That’s about the size of Denmark

While such pressing danger is now safely past, 91 of those 303 fires continue to burn as winter approaches, unseasonably late and an ominous harbinger of things to come. As NASA reports, “As of late October 2023, Canada’s remarkable fire season was finally slowing down. Dozens of fires were still out of control on October 24, but winter weather is expected to suppress most of them. However, even winter may not be enough in some cases. Previous research shows that overwintering ‘zombie’ fires in this region have increasingly begun to smolder underground throughout the winter and remerge in the spring as temperatures rise.”

I spoke with Canadian author and Arctic environmental expert Ed Struzik, whose recent books include two prescient tomes, Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future (Island Press, 2017) and Dark Days at Noon: The Future of Fire (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2022), who described this year as “the most intense fire season ever.” As he described, “Two-thirds of the Northwest Territories population was forced to evacuate for several weeks. The threat was territory wide. A research camp I was planning to visit on the coast of the Beaufort Sea was forced to evacuate because the smoke was so thick and unhealthy. It may be hard to believe, but many fires were still burning in mid-October when there is usually snow on the ground.” While “more than four million hectares of boreal forest burned in the NWT in 2023,” Struzik points out that “fires burned more than 18 million hectares of Russian forest in 2021, setting a record since the country began monitoring forest fires using satellites in 2001. If the Yukon and Alaska had burned big this year, the Russian record might have been surpassed.”

Coming to a Boil

Indeed, while unprecedented for the NWT, Struzik recalls that “the Arctic and sub-Arctic has burned big in the past.” As far back as 2004, “a record number of fires burned in the Yukon and Alaska. One complex of fires consumed over 1.7 million acres – almost the size of Vancouver Island.” Then, Struzik adds, “we got a good sense of what was coming three years later when a fire burned more than 1,000 square kilometers of tundra on Alaska’s North Slope. Tundra is almost always too wet and cold to be ignited by lightning or a campfire. Permafrost can be up to 300 feet deep. There is no evidence of a fire as big as this burning the tundra in the last 10,000 years.”

There is no evidence of a fire as big as this burning the tundra in the last 10,000 years

And since then, things have only continued to intensify: “Alaska burned big again in 2015. It began with a slow moving thunderstorm that shot out 62,000 lighting strikes in five days, triggering 286 fires. On June 20, there were 8,000 strikes in Alaska and several hundred more in the Yukon. No one had ever seen anything like it. Ironically, one fire overran part of the Alyeska pipeline.” Just last summer, Struzik was “visiting a climate change research station in the Dehcho region of the Northwest Territories. In an historic move, Laurier University handed ownership over to the indigenous community. In late October, when there is almost always snow on the ground, a wildfire burned through it.”

According to Struzik, “The rising number of fires in the Arctic and sub-Arctic is pure and simple, a symptom of a warming world. Very few fires are ignited by humans as they are in the south. Several things contribute to the severity. One-degree increase in temperature equals 12 per cent more lightning. More heat means more tundra and wetlands drying out and being primed for ignition. Wetlands are also important because they can slow or stop a fire.”

A Common Threat to a Divided Arctic

Noting the collapse in pan-Arctic cooperation after Russia invaded Ukraine, I asked Struzik if the mutual challenge of wildfires presents us with a compelling reason to reach across the re-emerging East-West divide and to resume pan-Arctic cooperation on at least this particular challenge. His reply: “I wish it were so. But based on everything I’ve seen and heard from scientists so far, pan-Arctic cooperation is unlikely so long as Putin is in power.” Struzik recalled how, “Following the catastrophic 2010 fire season, the German government offered money and expertise to help restore the hydrological regimes that keep Russia’s peaty bogs, fens, and marshes wet and their carbon sequestered. But on the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, German institutes – including the Succow Foundation – withdrew their support. Just weeks afterward, a Russian bomb in Ukraine likely triggered a wildfire in the forest around the Chernobyl nuclear site, a focus of another rewetting project.”

Struzik cautions this “cessation of scientific collaboration comes at a precarious moment for the Arctic: Environmental risks associated with sea ice loss, pollution, and shipping are increasing; Russia and other Arctic states are proposing new boundary lines along the continental shelf that would expand their claims over the Arctic Ocean seabed; and peatlands have been continuing to burn after a year of record-setting wildfires in northern Russia, adding substantially to the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. (Russia is the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.) In addition, China is ramping up its economic interests in the Arctic.” Struzik’s takeaway: “The Arctic has long been a model for optimism and international cooperation. A lot needs to be done to keep it that way.”

The Arctic has long been a model for optimism and international cooperation. A lot needs to be done to keep it that way.

The ’New Normal’ Is Anything But

As Struzik explains, “What happens in the Arctic matters to the rest of the world. There are many examples to drive this point home. One of the most impactful is the jet stream, which manufactures weather and moves weather from west to east. The strength of the jet stream is dependent on the difference in temperature between the Arctic and mid-latitudes. The larger the difference, the stronger the jet stream. As the temperatures difference wanes in this warming world, the jet stream weakens. That’s why we see heat domes building in places like British Columbia which has been hard hit by wildfires since 2017. The jet stream is not strong enough to move it and allow wet Pacific moisture to move in.”

I asked Struzik if we are now at war with nature in the Arctic, and if perhaps nature is now striking back? His reply: “The force and advantage are with nature. You can’t heat up the pot, as we are doing in the south, and not expect things to boil over.” Struzik commented that he’s “heard many people refer to this new wildfire paradigm as the ‘new normal’. But there is nothing normal about what is happening. Almost each year since the turn of the century has brought something new and unexpected, as I point out in my book Dark Days at Noon: The Future of Fire. Unless we come to grips with this new reality, nothing will be normal.”

No. 4/2023, 30 November 2023

This article is a part of the Arctic Circle Journal Series which provides insight, understanding and new information. The material represents the opinions of the author but not those of Arctic Circle.

Barry Scott Zellen, PhD

Research Scholar, Department of Geography, University of Connecticut

Since 2018, Barry Scott Zellen, PhD, has been a Research Scholar in the Department of Geography at the University of Connecticut where he specializes in Arctic geopolitics, diplomacy, and security. He was a 2020 Fulbright Scholar at the University of Akureyri's Polar Law Centre., and lived in the Northwest Territories and Yukon during the 1990s, where he managed several native communications societies funded by the Northern Native Broadcast Access Program (NNBAP).

Zellen has authored or edited a dozen books on Arctic, indigenous and strategic issues published by Routledge (Complex Real Property Rights Series), ABC-Clio (Praeger Security International, and Praeger Security and the Environment Series), Stanford University Press (Security Studies Series), University of Calgary Press (Northern Lights Series), Continuum Books (Bloomsbury Academic), and Lexington Books.