Particulate Pandemic: Wildfires and COVID-19

As summer heats up, a second faceless killer will join coronavirus in assaulting the Arctic: particulates. Wildfires are an annual annoyance across the High North, but COVID-19 threatens to drastically worsen this year’s burn season. 

University of British Columbia researchers recently published a study underscoring the link between wildfires and ambulance dispatches. In just one hour, the release of fine particulates caused a significant jump in emergency respiratory treatment.

Wildfires in the Arctic are potentially increasing deaths from respiratory distress

With coronavirus cases on the rise, wildfire particulates are poised to worsen symptoms and possibly increase deaths. Though evacuations may eventually be necessary, all Arctic citizens can do now is stock up on medication and air cleaners. 

Unfortunately, COVID-19 is creating more than just health difficulties this season. Firefighting mobilization and organization has been substantially hampered by the lockdown and its drain on American and Canadian state capacity. 

Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT) are boosting fire management spending by $4 million this season in response to COVID-19. With a smaller number of firefighters available, increased investment in short-term aircraft is now essential for locating and containing bushfires. The supplementary fire crews able to deploy will be housed in ‘bubble camps’, and kept separate from NWT based emergency responders. 

In the American Arctic…

Alaska is in a similarly precarious position. Coronavirus restrictions are projected to reduce available manpower and equipment from the Lower 48 by 30%. As a result, wildfire officials are changing tack and focusing on fire prevention. Since May 1st, large swaths of Alaska have been subject to a burn ban. As nearly 85% of American wildfires are caused by humans, officials hope to reduce fire incidence throughout the summer. 

In Siberia

A Siberian heatwave has ignited several fires across the Russian Arctic. In conjunction with reemerging ‘zombie fires’ in the peatlands, Russia faces an exceptionally dangerous wildfire season. Their emergency response program is likely to encounter the same COVID-19 logistical difficulties as the United States and Canada.

The Arctic is largely dependent on outside support for its survival. Amid a particulate-pandemic, investment in the region’s self-sufficiency is more necessary than ever.


COVID-19 in the Cryosphere

In the popular imagination, the Arctic is a frigid, barren expanse of silence and snow. However, the region is host to a bustling network of research, trade, industry, and tourism. The High North is subject to similar coronavirus containment measures as the non-polar world, though with some notable differences. COVID-19 is highlighting old challenges and creating new opportunities in the Arctic.

The Polarstern

The German research icebreaker Polarstern was moored in ice for a year-long study of global warming. The Polarstern was to be a ‘drifting observatory’, and represented a leap forward in Arctic climate study. COVID-19 disrupted the operation in April as a result of supply line cutoffs and crew exchange complications. After a three week pause in research, the ship will relocate to another ice floe to continue its mission.

Arctic Wind Farms

The first ever industrial-scale Arctic wind farm will continue development as planned, with no COVID delays. Enel Russia is constructing the plant near the port city of Murmansk, the largest city in the Arctic. The northern Kola region possesses high wind-energy potential, and the plant will connect to Russia’s national grid upon completion. 

Local Greenlandic Tourism

Greenland’s state-owned tourism agency is launching a new ‘staycation’ program in an attempt to support the country’s struggling travel industry. The domestic tourism push is geared toward connecting Greenlanders with their rich traditions and natural landscapes. Aside from essential supply trips, the island was totally shut down to defend against the coronavirus. With the tourism sector having grown 20% from 2015 to 2016, the total isolation policy threatens to derail future expansion. 

Travel within Greenland is difficult as the island lacks a highway or rail system. Most movement between towns and territories is conducted by air, sea or dogsled. However, a boost in domestic tourism would be a boon for the many Greenlandic businesses that fall outside of the territory’s hegemonic fishing industry.

The Arctic will adapt to a new future post-COVID

COVID-19 has significantly disrupted the Arctic, but long-term investment and development is mostly unaffected. The region is simply too valuable to be neglected or abandoned, and will likely fare well in the post-pandemic world economy.