ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Greenland is burning - large wildfires around the Arctic island's west coast. Rebecca Hersher says the blazes are surprising scientists and Greenlanders.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Nina-Vivi Andersen has lived in Greenland her whole life, and she's never heard of a wildfire there.
NINA-VIVI ANDERSEN: So it's very unusual.
HERSHER: Andersen is a reporter at Nanoq News in the capital, Nuuk. Over Skype, she told me that even though the fires are far away from the closest towns, the timing is pretty bad because it's reindeer hunting season.
ANDERSEN: We just opened the reindeer season the first of August.
HERSHER: The fire is causing problems for the hunters.
ANDERSEN: We have been talking with hunters and stuff like that, and they are very sad about the wildfire.
HERSHER: A reindeer hunter's campfire or a cigarette likely started the blazes. But how it happened is a mystery because that part of Greenland is above the Arctic Circle, and the ground there is usually frozen all year.
JESSICA MCCARTY: Permafrost is the condition of the soil. It's in a state of majority frozenness.
HERSHER: Jessica McCarty is an assistant professor of geography at Miami University in Ohio. She studies fires all over the world, and she's been puzzling over satellite data about the Greenland fires for weeks. She thinks what's happened is permafrost has started to melt, exposing dry peat. If that's happened...
MCCARTY: It's a good fuel source. It's essentially like the peat logs that you buy for fire pits or for fireplaces.
HERSHER: Peat is a kind of soil that's super concentrated decayed plant stuff. When peat burns, the flames don't run across the landscape like they do in a grass or forest fire. Instead, they smolder down into the ground. Another thing - peat fires release a lot of greenhouse gases.
MCCARTY: Peat is basically pure carbon. So yes, when it burns, it releases a lot of CO2.
HERSHER: Sounds like bad news.
MCCARTY: It's bad. Yeah. The one that I'm concerned about for Greenland is the black carbon. 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.
HERSHER: Which drives sea level rise. It's one way wildfires near glaciers can exacerbate the effects of climate change. As for whether these fires are being caused by climate change, McCarty says it probably contributes, but she needs to study it more.
MCCARTY: 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.
HERSHER: Climate models predicted that it would take until 2050 for the permafrost to melt this much. Now 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. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.
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