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 on fire.
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 uncommon.
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 was first 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 — the 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 it.
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…