The Burning Season: Alaska’s Interior is on Fire

By Tom Yulsman | June 23, 2015 9:27 pm
burning season

NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this image of Alaska on Monday, June 22, 2015. Red dots indicate areas where the satellite detected the anomalous warmth of wildfires. (Source: NASA Worldview)

So far this year, 504 fires have scorched 513 square miles of Alaska — an area the size of the sprawling city of Los Angeles.

And the burning season has only just begun.

Make sure to click on the image above so you can get a full view of just how much of Alaska’s interior is burning. You’re looking at almost the whole state (minus a bit of the Aleutian Island chain and southeastern Alaska).

Those red dots indicate where NASA’s Aqua satellite detected anomalously hot areas yesterday (June 22) — the signature of wildfire. And check out that bluish smoke. It extends from the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in the west, across central Alaska and on to to the Canadian border in the east, a distance of about 800 miles.

As I’m writing this on Tuesday, June 23 the air quality in Fairbanks was rated as unhealthy, thanks to the pall of smoke. As of the latest count, 261 fires are burning in Alaska. (Go here for a map showing the location of all active Alaskan wildfires.)

burning season

Orange and red colors in this Google Earth map indicate where temperatures significantly exceeded the long-term average in May, 2015. (Source: NASA &Google Earth)

As the Google Earth map above shows, Alaska baked in May.

In fact, the state experienced it’s warmest May in 91-years of record keeping. At 44.9 degrees F, it was 7.1 degrees above average, according to the the latest monthly report from the National Centers for Environmental Information. But it wasn’t just warm in May. It was also the 16th driest May on record for the state, and the extent of snow cover was the smallest on record.

burning season

As the graph above shows, temperatures during May have been getting warmer over time. And this May’s record warmth in Alaska pretty much shattered the previous record in 2005. This May was almost off the charts.

May was also the warmest on record globally (or in a tie for second warmest, depending on which analysis is used).

SEE ALSO: The Pope’s Encyclical is Out, and so is the Verdict on 2015’s Climate So Far — Warmest on Record

burning season

NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this image of Lake Baikal in Russia and the surrounding region on June 21, 2015. Note the bluish smoke plumes from numerous wildfires. (Source: NASA Worldview)

The satellite image above of Russia’s Lake Baikal in Siberia shows the impact of warm temperatures in that region. (Click here for a Google map showing Lake Baikal’s location.) Multiple wildfires were burning around the lake when the Aqua satellite acquired this image on June 21. For a sense of scale, consider that the lake is 400 miles long!

Siberia experienced its warmest spring on record. As a story in Siberia Times puts it:

Some parts of Siberia were warmer than usual by 6C, with a host of anecdotal examples of normal meteorological rules being turned on their head. For a few days in late April, for example, the city of Irkutsk boasted higher temperatures than Madrid.

The ice on vast Lake Baikal was too thin or non-existent even in February and March, forcing the cancellation of a number of events. In the past, it was safe to drive cars across the frozen lake, the deepest in the world.

I’m actually quite interested in what’s happening around Lake Baikal — because my son is on its shores right now! I haven’t heard from him in a few days, probably because the hike-in hostel where he’s staying doesn’t have wifi.

I hope he’s taking pictures. If so, and if he’s got anything interesting, I’ll share them in a forthcoming post.

  • Dale Day

    The whole world’s on fire. Ma Nature telling us something?

    • OWilson

      Yes, it couldn’t be clearer.

      The end is nigh!
      Give up your worldly goods, and ye shall be saved!

      • Matt Schlutz

        I knew it! I thought you sounded familiar. I’m sure I’ve heard you with a microphone very early in the morning out the front of work, waving a cross about. Now it all makes sense Wilson:)

        • OWilson

          You work?

          • Matt Schlutz

            Don’t be silly! What with proofing manifestos for the world order government, and my naked bicycle rallies how could I possibly find the time. Anyways, no need, everybody knows that lazy ‘lefty’s’ just mooch off people that vote Conservatives, so there’s hardly an expectation to.

          • OWilson

            As long as there’s more folks pulling the wagon than riding in it, we’re good.

            At least until they invent a perpetual motion machine, otherwise known as a “free lunch” :)

          • brenda

            like Adam said I am alarmed that people can earn $5875 in a few weeks on the internet . see here

  • CeceliaMGast

    ….All time hit the discover Find Here

  • OWilson

    It’s not all bad.

    Here’s a less alarming and more objective view from

    Fire is a natural part of Alaska’s ecosystem. Many positive benefits of fire have been recognized. Fire can:

    Help new grasses and shrubs to grow, attracting meadow voles, other rodents, and grouse. Foxes, martens, and birds of prey soon follow.

    Increase herbs and willow shoots for moose to browse in burned areas.
    The new berry bushes attract bears.

    Recycle nutrients into the soil.

    Clear dense shrubbery and warm the soil, resulting in improved drainage and fertility.

    Be a tool in land management. This is called prescribed burning, and it is used to:

    Create changes in habitat that allow increased and more diverse use by wildlife.

    Prepare logged-over areas for reforestation

    Clear land, to reduce fire hazard or allow for other uses.

    Wildfires shape the landscape by creating a patchwork of meadows, shrub lands, Birch, and spruce forests. As you travel in Alaska, see different plant communities by the changes in vegetation.

    Other Fire Facts

    in the area we know as the Kenai Peninsula. It is thought that the fires of 1941 burned off the spruce and created the first growth birch, willow, and aspen stands—making the area an ideal habitat for moose.

    There is evidence that the entire 25 million acres of the Copper River Basin all burned at some time, long ago.

    The 1977 Bear Creek fire, near Farewell, burned 345,000 acres. Grass grew up after the fire, attracting bison herds to the area.
    Land and game managers are reburning to maintain a habitat for the bison.

    According to game biologists, if there were no fires, there wouldn’t be opportunities for birch, willow, and aspen to grow. All three of these species are staples in a typical moose diet. So, in a weird way, if there were no fires, there would be no moose.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Thank you for the needed reminder than wildfire is a natural part of these ecosystems. Your point is well taken. That said, there is something unsettling about the scale of the wildfires occurring now in Alaska, as well as their connection to the dryness and high temperatures the state has been experiencing.

      And that really gets at the nugget of the climate change issue, doesn’t it? Heat and drought on one end of the spectrum, and extreme rainfall events on the other, are all parts of natural variation. And determining what role climate change may be playing in particular cases of these phenomena is exceedingly difficult. That is one reason why I did not mention climate change in this story.

      • OWilson

        We’re actually not that far apart, Tom.
        You want to leave a better planet.
        I want to leave a better ‘world’.
        Peace and love today, y,all :)

  • Mike Richardson

    Hope things are going well with your son, and I look forward to any pictures and firsthand accounts about Lake Baikal. As the largest freshwater lake on earth (an inland sea, actually), Lake Baikal features aquatic species unlike anywhere else on the planet, and showcases the importance of water conservation to the many communities on its shore. Unfortunately, both under the Soviet Union and in recent years, the lake has suffered both from rampant pollution in some areas, and receding shorelines overall. Warmer temperatures aren’t likely to help the health of Lake Baikal anymore than they’re helping with the fire situation in Alaska.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Thank you for these comments Mike. And yes, my son is fine. I’m hoping to ‘debrief’ him as soon as he finds a reliable wifi connection!



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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