If shrubbery and peatlands catch on fire on a sparsely populated island that’s synonymous with snow and ice, will anyone notice?
The answer, thanks to satellite monitoring, is an unequivocal “yes.” During the past several days, scientists have been keeping close tabs on an unusually large wildfire in southwest Greenland, about 90 miles northeast of the town of Sisimiut. This is one of at least two fires currently burning in Greenland.
While fires are not unheard of along the ice-free edges of the island, the large one near Sisimiut is noteworthy for its size and duration, scientists say. Wildfires in Greenland are outpacing past years in terms of the number of satellite-detected incidents.
The current fire is the largest wildfire spotted in Greenland since a NASA satellite instrument was turned on in 2002.
While most of Greenland is covered by snow and ice, the edges of the island are covered by grasses, shrubs, mosses, and other vegetation that, when sufficiently dry, can burn.
According to NASA, satellites first detected evidence of the fire on July 31, 2017. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument and the Suomi NPP satellite’s instruments collected daily images of smoke streaming from the fire over the next week.
An analysis from Stef Lhermitte of the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands suggests that NASA’s MODIS instrument has spotted more wildfire activity in Greenland in 2017 than it has during any other year since the sensor began collecting data in 2000.
The fire may be burning through peat, which would make it particularly destructive, since peatlands store large amounts of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane.
It is not clear what triggered the fire, though it may have been human-caused since hunting and fishing are popular at this time of year.
Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute, said the fire is occurring in an area “popular with hunters.”
“I spoke to a Greenlandic journalist today who had spoken to the fire service, they have apparently also suggested the two [fires] currently burning are most likely human-caused fires,” Mottram said in an email.
She also suspects it’s a peat fire, saying: “I have not been to this area, but it seems very likely it is a peatland area given other locations I’ve visited.”
The area where the large fire is burning has been…