Arctic Burning: 3/4 Mile Wide Fire Tornado Over Tetlin Junction, Alaska

(Hat tip to Peter Sinclair who thumbs his nose at the deniers stating, in reaction to this Fire Tornado: “sure, happens all the time.”)

The above is a film recorded on August 16th, 2013 of an explosive fire complex forming a massive fire and smoke tornado 3/4 of a mile across and towering thousands of feet into the air over a ridge line near Tetlin Junction Alaska. Close inspection of the video reveals trees and branches being sucked into the large fire ‘tornado’ caused by very strong inflow along the fire’s leading edge. Tim Whitesell, a firefighter at the scene noted:

“A picture probably is worth a thousand words, but there are indeed times when a picture just doesn’t do it justice. I’ve never seen anything like it until now.”

The terrain features in this region include boreal forest and soil that is mostly permafrost. The film shows both burning trees and ground along with a section involved in an episode of explosive outburst.

Reports from from The Alaska Fire Service are nothing short of stunning:

“This wildland fire footage was captured on August 16, 2013, on the southeast perimeter of the Tetlin Junction Ridge Fire (#414), burning east of Tok and Tetlin junctions, north of the Alaska Highway.

Fire behavior increased into the later part of the afternoon on August 16. At approximately 7:00 p.m., the Alaska Division of Forestry Aerial Supervision Module (consisting of Tim Whitesell and Doug Burts) reported the fire vortex to be about 3/4 of a mile wide; it lasted for about an hour. The extreme fire behavior uprooted trees, a scene that was captured by this footage- look for trees being blown around in the smoke column at the end of the clip.”

The blaze that sparked this massive fire tornado is arguably one of the smaller events to impact the Arctic this year, just a fraction of the size of larger infernos that have raged through areas of Canada and Russia since June. In ‘Russia Experiences Great Burning’ MODIS shots identified fire complexes and burn scars that covered 100 to 300 square miles or more (one fire burn scar measured a massive 30×70 miles). These events happened ‘off camera’ so there is no way to know if they also spawned very large fire tornadoes similar to the kind witnessed at Tetlin Ridge. What is clear from this fire and from fires across the Arctic this year and last is that the far north is burning like never before. As Russia’s eastern provinces experienced some of their worst flooding in 120 years, massive wildfires continued to burn even as the terrible rains and storm complexes advanced in an ominous Song of Flood and Fire. By now, the extent of Russian blazes has been somewhat lessened by these storms, although fire maps still show numerous active blazes.

A satellite picture of the blazing ridge-line on August 15 is given below.  The fire is located in the center of the image and spans about 5×10 miles of the affected ridge line. You can also see the burn scars of previous wildfires in the lands surrounding the August 15-16 blaze.

Tetlin Junction Fire Tornado

Tetlin Junction Fire Tornado

(Image source: NASA/Lance-Modis)

Thawing permafrost, warming forests, Arctic heatwaves and more energetic storms combine to provide massive volumes of warming fuel and increasingly powerful ignition events in the Arctic. Not only can trees burn, but the organic carbon stored in permafrost and sometimes bottled up as methane beneath the surface also provides fuel. In many cases, fires have burned three feet deep into what was the permafrost bed below consuming roots, stumps and soil.

Very large and energetic fire outbreaks have been increasing throughout the Arctic with recent years seeing some of the worst fires on record.

Links, Credits and Hat Tips:

The Alaska Fire Service

Climate Crocks

NASA/Lance-Modis

Colorado Bob

Robin Westenra

Leave a comment

33 Comments

  1. Hi Robert, thanks for bringing this up ;-) It was actually my who was “a reader”, and I found the video over at “See more rocks” blog from New Zealand (he links your blogs regularly as well): robinwestenra.blogspot.com

    BTW, what do you think about the recent study that found NO link between Arctic ice and “wavier” Jet-stream? More here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/wp/2013/08/19/arctic-warming-and-our-extreme-weather-no-clear-link-new-study-finds/

    best,

    Alex

    Reply
    • Well, the study already includes a biased sample — 1980-2011 — a period when sea ice is in decline.

      As for their observations… I’d like to ask them about the strength of the jet stream when we have weather systems that move 3,000 miles in retrograde or when we have troughs that reach all the way to the Gulf of Mexico in August and ridges that frequently compromise the Arctic Circle.

      I’d like to ask the researchers what they think of the new pattern of emerging Arctic heatwaves and how powerful ridges contribute to this phenomena. And I’d also like to ask them about the huge dip in the jet stream that persisted for three months over Europe after a 2012 Arctic melt season that included the lowest sea ice levels on record.

      The article mentions the highly anomalous storm that was Sandy.

      My view is that Francis has it right and current observations jibe well with her research. I’ll take a look at this paper. But, in general, it’s not surprising to me that the science is still involved in debate over this issue. Science is, by nature, conservative, often requiring time for broader acceptance of new thought. The problem is we really don’t have the 10-20 years it usually takes to resolve such differences. By that time, weather will likely be entering a different extreme.

      As for the source, thanks for giving it. I’ll link to the blog post. :)

      Reply
      • “By that time, weather will likely be entering a different extreme.”

        And meteorologists likely will leave out any events older than 30 years, add the new extremes, come up with an average, and call THAT the new “normal!” Just like they do today — a good rule of thumb in the old days (before 2000), but when the climate is shifting to a new phase, not so much.

      • You’ve got it, my friend. Moving the goal posts does not a normal climate make.

      • Dr. Francis has responded to this new research from Dr. Barnes. You can read her comments at the end of this link:

        http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/wp/2013/08/21/researcher-defends-work-linking-arctic-warming-and-extreme-weather/

        In brief, Francis believes that Barnes’ work actually supports her hypothesis and conclusions – in a number of ways.

      • I find Francis’ results to be conclusive and to bear out in observation. They are a powerful tool for predicting and interpreting current weather patterns.

        The Barnes study appears nonsensical to me in that it produces findings that do not support its conclusions.

        Since current observations are on the side of Francis — with Arctic Amplification reducing the temp difference between the poles and the mid latitudes and with an observed slowing of the Jet in both the Barnes study and in the Francis work — the conclusions drawn by both the Barnes paper and the Accu weather reporter/meteorologist are unsupportable. Such protestations remind me of the earlier challenges to plate tectonics when any 4th grade geography student could find direct and visible evidence to refute the challengers’ claims. Barnes conclusions do not refute Francis so much as call into question basic atmospheric physics. The fact that Accu weather misses this point is, to me, astounding.

        Lastly, Francis provides new information that will be critical to the prediction of emerging dangerous weather patterns. An honest refutation of these findings may be somewhat helpful in refining the science. However, this paper appears to be more an attempt to misuse pertinent data to muddy the waters on an issue of key importance. As such, and at the current late hour, it provides little more than a false comfort in the face of rising extremes.

      • I, too, find Francis’s work to be solid and compelling, Robert. And I’m more than a bit annoyed with what appears to be sleight-of-hand in the analysis of the 250 hPa level.

        CSU is my alma mater. Barnes doesn’t make me proud.

  2. Randy

     /  August 21, 2013

    Great video.

    The InciWeb report on the event stated that full sized trees were being ripped from the ground roots and all and then tossed 200-300 feet in the air. I had to read it twice to make sure I was not mistaken.

    You know, regular fire activity. Nothing to see here. Move along.

    Thanks for the tremendous coverage of all that is truly important.

    Reply
    • Can you please provide a link to the InciWeb report? I’d like to include this observation of a tremendously violent fire tornado.

      Yeah, completely normal ;) I wonder what occurred off camera over there in Russia. From the satellite, it looks like a bunch of multi-megaton bombs went off.

      Thanks for the kind words. In all honesty, this stuff scares the living daylights out of me. It’s even worse that an effective response appears to be nonexistent.

      Reply
    • It would be interesting to know if that were actually trees OR just a bark… don’t know.

      Alex

      Reply
      • Randy

         /  August 21, 2013

        Good point Alex. The InciWeb update report is written over on the main page for each incident and I cannot find an archived copy for that day. The report also noted that it moved along a one mile stretch in a matter of minutes.

        As a resident of Prescott, AZ we have seen first hand the new normal. The Doce Fire in June burned not only up slope but down much faster than anyone expected. The Yarnell Hill Fire that killed our Granite Mtn Hotshots moved at over twelve miles per hour when it overtook them.

        Same thing with the fires in Colorado and Idaho. Fire behavior that people who know it best have never seen before. Firefighters are generally a laconic bunch. When they, as a community, consistently talk about these conditions you know it is bad.

      • Trees. The scale isn’t right for bark.

      • Randy

         /  August 21, 2013

        From the Alaska Dept. of Forestry

        Note the last line.

        “This wildland fire footage was captured on August 16, 2013, on the southeast perimeter of the Tetlin Junction Ridge Fire (#414), burning east of Tok and Tetlin junctions, north of the Alaska Highway.

        Fire behavior increased into the later part of the afternoon on August 16. At approximately 7:00 p.m., the Alaska Division of Forestry Aerial Supervision Module (consisting of Tim Whitesell and Doug Burts) reported the fire vortex to be about 3/4 of a mile wide; it lasted for about an hour. The extreme fire behavior uprooted trees, a scene that was captured by this footage- look for trees being blown around in the smoke column at the end of the clip.”

        3/4 of a mile wide and 1 hour. Incredible.

  3. And from Alaskan Division of Forestry: The Alaska Division of Forestry firefighter that captured the footage has never seen anything like it in his 20 years of firefighting. It is the kind of fire behavior you hear about but can’t really believe. “A picture probably is worth a thousand words, but there are indeed times when a picture just doesn’t do it justice. I’ve never seen anything like it until now.” – Tim Whitesell. They are on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AK.Forestry

    Alex

    Reply
  4. Am I right in assuming that the methane and carbon is not supposed to be on the surface at this point in Earth’s history? It’s supposed to still be “locked” underground, right?

    Reply
    • You can think of Permafrost as the ghost of the great ice sheets of the last ice age. During the past 800,000 years, this layer of frozen ground remained mostly intact staying frozen until the interglacial period proceeded back to ice age. Now, under human-caused warming, that permafrost is thawing and, as it does, it liberates billions of tons of organic carbon that was previously locked in the soil.

      In anaerobic environments, such as within closed off damp pockets of thawing permafrost, microbes reaching the now liberated carbon produce methane. But even without the methane the carbon layer can burn. It’s the same thing that burns in trees and twigs during a forest fire. Thawing permafrost just provides another layer of fuel for the fires to burn.

      Reply
  5. Is this the first time a fire tornado has been recorded to happen? It looks insane!!!

    Reply
  6. gerald spezio

     /  August 21, 2013

    Gruesome observational evidence of what extreme weather & climate events result from .8 C temperature increase.

    How can anyone be cavalier about the “accepted” increase to 2.0 C increase?

    Arctic temperature increases are already double of the planetary mean.

    Comes an almost certain methane spike in the near future, future meaning soon in single digit years; & comes hell on earth

    James Hansen’s prescient STORMS OF MY GRAND CHILDREN is becoming STORMS OF EVERYONE ALIVE TODAY, including my grandchildren.

    Reply
  7. Steve

     /  August 21, 2013

    I laughed when I read this. Really? A three quarter mile wide fire tornado in Alaska that lasted an hour? This idea would have got thrown out of the story line for The Day After Tomorrow because it wasn’t believable. I’m hearing Hudson on a daily basis now. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhS-i-c1XxI

    Reply
  8. Steve

     /  August 21, 2013

    I’ve said this several times, but the speed at which these events are taking place at is unreal. I have a very bad feeling that something has taken place in our atmosphere that we are unaware of and this unwanted thrill ride is going to pick up momentum very quickly. I might be wrong, but what we’ve seen lately defies logic to me.

    Reply
    • It’s completely logical to me. The effects of climate change grow steadily worse. Eventually, tipping points are reached. Just before the tipping points, things get scary.

      Reply
  9. A REGULAR tornado that was 3/4ths of a mile wide used to be one we’d call extreme… well, still is, actually.

    Reply
  10. Steve

     /  August 22, 2013

    So you think we are in the scary zone before we reach the tipping point? What tipping point do you think we are in danger of breaching? Do you think there is one specific thing that we should fear or do you think it will take a combination of factors? It appears that our biggest concerns right now are ice melt and its effects on the jet stream. I believe it is, but do we know for sure that ice melt is effecting the jet flow? I haven’t seen any studies that led us to expect these numerous catastrophic rainfalls were coming. What we have seen far exceeds the 6% increase in the water cycle per 1 degree C. Either localized amplifying effects can greatly intensify these storms or there is another piece to the puzzle that I’m unaware of or hasn’t been brought to light. So many fascinating questions!
    I wonder if at some point this winter the East Coast will get blasted with an ocean effect blizzard that was triggered by a retrograde weather pattern. NYC or Boston becomes the new Buffalo and see a 120 inch season of snowfall.

    Reply
    • In this case, when net Arctic carbon contributions begin to become large enough to markedly increase global forcing. We’re at the beginning of this event now, but I think it will really pick up pace in the coming years and decades. When this happens, the fires we are seeing now will probably seem as a precursor. There’s a lot of ignition fuel thawing in that ground. Add heat and it burns, as we see above.

      Reply
  11. I would point out that this part of Alaska has never had the fire policy of the lower 48, so this fire was not the result of man suppressing fires, and the forests becoming over grown.

    Reply
  12. RS –
    Some good graphs in this one. :

    U.S. Southeast experiencing extreme rainfall in 2013
    http://earthsky.org/earth/u-s-southeast-experiencing-extreme-rainfall-in-2013

    “One of my biggest concerns across the southeastern United States is the threat for tropical cyclones hitting the region. A tropical system impacting the Southeast is the last thing the region needs. Such a system would likely create widespread flooding across the region, as more rain falls on the already-soaked ground. That scenario could easily develop into a billion-dollar disaster, depending on the track and movement of the cyclone.

    As we enter the peak of the hurricane season, the Southeast coast becomes very vulnerable to future hits. All of the atmospheric conditions are appearing very favorable for tropical cyclone development towards the end of August and into the month of September. My biggest fear is seeing a tropical system push into the Southeast, because this region does not need to see any additional heavy rain.

    Bottom line: 2013 is already ranked as the second-wettest period for the U.S. Southeast since record-keeping began. With additional months to go before the year ends, 2013 could easily become the wettest period ever record in the region. Many cities have already received their average yearly rainfall totals. As we enter the peak of hurricane season, a major concern is the potential for a tropical cyclone hitting the region and dumping more heavy rain. If this occurs, we could see major flooding problems in the U.S. Southeast. Let’s hope the rest of the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season remains quiet.”

    Reply
    • Thanks for the graphs. Extraordinarily compelling.

      I’m worried about this region too, Bob. We’ve had that persistent dip in the Jet channeling in those troughs in train fashion all summer long. It’s just waiting for a tropical storm or hurricane to wreck things. The saving grace, for the moment, has been a ‘near-normal’ hurricane season. If the guns of August and September unload, we’re in real trouble.

      Reply
  13. Butterfly
    Chrysalis
    Flying

    Earth
    Climatic Terraforming
    Creator Returns To Gather His Own

    Reply

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