Don’t Burn the Crops

NASA

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.


Want a quick recipe for reducing Arctic ice melt fast? Stop burning northern hemisphere farmlands and pasturelands.

New research finds that large-scale agricultural burning in Russia, Kazakhstan, China, the US, Canada, and the Ukraine is melting Arctic ice.

The big contributor: Spring burning, when farmers torch crop residues and brush to clear new land for crops and livestock. The black carbon soot produced by these fires flows north, warms the surrounding air, and absorbs solar energy when it falls on ice and snow.

How bad is the problem? Springtime burning may account for 30 percent of Arctic warming to date.

The good news is there’s an easy fix. Targeting these burns gets us a genuinely fast reduction in temperature over the Arctic. Plus we know how to control these pollutants right now. Just stop burning. Right now. Before the melting ice rewires the oceanic currents delivering us the climate we’re used to.

The research is part of POLARCAT, an international effort to track the transport of pollutants into the Arctic from lower latitudes. Researchers were surprised to find 50 smoke plumes that analysis of satellite images revealed came from agricultural fires in Northern Kazakhstan and Southern Russia and from forest fires in Southern Siberia. The emissions from these fires far outweighed those from fossil fuels.

“These fires weren’t part of our standard predictions, they weren’t in our models,” says Daniel Jacob, a professor of atmospheric chemistry and environmental engineering at Harvard.

Although global warming is largely the result of excess accumulation of carbon dioxide, the Arctic is highly sensitive to short-lived pollutants like black carbon. Forest fires, agricultural burning, primitive cookstoves, and diesel fuel are the primary sources of black carbon.

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.