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Wildfires have ignited inside the Arctic Circle

In Sweden, Latvia, and Greece, wildfires are spreading amid a brutal heat wave.

Aerial image shows the Forest fires burning near Ljusdal, Sweden on July 18, 2018. Some of Sweden’s fires this summer have ignited inside the Arctic Circle.
Aerial image showing forest fires burning near Ljusdal, Sweden, on July 18, 2018. Some of Sweden’s fires this summer have ignited even further north, inside the Arctic Circle.
Maja Suslin/AFP/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

It’s so hot, even parts of the Arctic are on fire.

Temperatures this month reached 86 degrees Fahrenheit well inside the Arctic Circle in Sweden, where the worst fires the country has seen in decades are now burning. More than 50 fires have ignited across the country, forcing evacuations. Finland and Norway are also fighting flames.

“This is a serious situation and the risk for forest fires is extremely high in the whole country,” Jakob Wernerman, operative head of the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, told the Associated Press.

So far, no deaths from wildfires have been reported in Scandinavia, but Greece hasn’t been so fortunate. The country has declared a state of emergency as raging forest fires have killed at least 81 people and injured more than 190.

“There are no words to describe the feelings of all of us, these times,” said Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras during a televised address Tuesday. “The country is going through a tragedy.”

The government suspects arsonists may be behind the fires. But there’s also been intense heat across Europe this summer, and climate scientists say we can expect more of this extreme weather with global warming.

High temperatures forced the Acropolis to close for several hours this week. The Greek government can close public attractions when temperatures reach 96.8°F, according to the Associated Press.

Greece’s intense heat has helped dry out shrubs and trees, making them more likely to ignite.

The heat and drought pattern is similar to that playing out much further north in Latvia and Sweden. Parts of Italy are also on fire. Earlier this year, enormous fires scorched Siberia.

Across Europe, fire risks remain high in the coming weeks, according to the European Forest Fire Information System:

Fire risk across Europe
Fire risk across Europe
European Forest Fire Information System

While warm temperatures and dry conditions crop up sporadically throughout Europe during the summer, it’s highly unusual that so many places are experiencing such hot, dry conditions for so long at the same time:

A corollary is that summers also spark wildfires in Europe on a regular basis, but rarely in so many places at the same time.

As for the rest of the world, heat this summer has already proved deadly in countries including Japan, Pakistan, and Canada.

Despite thousands of miles and an ocean in-between, many of the same trends behind the ongoing wildfires in Colorado, Oregon, and California are at play in Europe. As in the United States, Europeans are also building in increasingly fire-prone regions. Humans are also igniting most of these conflagrations.

As the climate changes, the fire season is getting longer, now stretching from June through October in Europe. We saw this play out late last year as Hurricane Ophelia sent stiff winds through Portugal and Spain, driving wildfires that killed more than 100 people. The European Environment Agency reported that “an expansion of the fire-prone area and longer fire seasons are projected across Europe.”

Several European countries are now chipping in to help put out the fires. Sweden is getting assistance from France, Germany, Lithuania, Norway, Portugal, and Italy, who are contributing fire trucks, firefighters, soldiers, and water-bombing aircraft. The European Union is also mobilizing support staff and equipment to fight fires in Greece under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

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