“Our house is burning and we are looking somewhere else” said French president Jacques Chirac in 2002 – Fires from Canada to Greenland in 2017

“Our house is burning and we are looking somewhere else. Nature mutilated, overexploited is not able to recover and we refuse to admit it. From North to South, it suffers from ill-development, and we are indifferent. Earth and humanity are in great peril and we are accountable” (from my own English translation).

Those were the words pronounced by our former French president in 2002 in Johannesburg (South-Africa) in 2002 during the Earth summit. The real French words pronounced were the following: “Notre maison brûle et nous regardons ailleurs. La nature, mutilée, surexploitée, ne parvient plus à se reconstituer et nous refusons de l’admettre. L’humanité souffre. Elle souffre de mal-développement, au nord comme au sud, et nous sommes indifférents. La terre et l’humanité sont en péril et nous en sommes tous responsables.”

Jacques Chirac, former French president of the Republic (1995-2007), at the Earth summit in Johannesburg in 2002 pronouncing the famous statement “Our house is burning and we are looking somewhere else”.

At that time, large wildfires were ravaging Australia and societies were debating on the responsibility of climate change. 15 years later, 2017, these words are somehow ringing a bell to me. When looking at all the twitter posts during the last 2 months, we quickly get the feeling that Earth is on fire.

Not only, British Colombia (Western Canada) is facing one of its worst wildfire season, France and other European countries (Portugal, Greece, Croatia) have been victims of raging forest fires this Summer, wildfire episodes are increasing in eastern Russia, but also a fire sparked in Greenland the last weeks, an odd occurrence for this island more known for ice.

Kalamos fires, in Greece, in August 2017 as seen by the COPERNICUS Sentinel-2 data (Source: http://www.esa.int/spaceinimages/Images/2017/08/Kalamos_fires)

A series of blazes has burned in the vicinity of Kangerlussuaq, a small town that serves as a basecamp for researchers in the summer to access Greenland’s ice sheet and western glaciers. The largest fire has burned roughly 3,000 acres and sent smoke spiralling a mile into the sky, prompting hunting and hiking closures in the area, according to local news reports. There’s no denying that it’s weird to be talking about wildfires in Greenland because ice covers the majority of the island. Forests are basically non-existent and this fire appears to be burning through grasses, willows and other low-slung vegetation on the tundra that makes up the majority of the land not covered by ice.

Smoke from the Greenland fire seen in satellite images
copernicus sentinel -2b/pierre Markuse/ESA (Source: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2143159-largest-ever-wildfire-in-greenland-seen-burning-from-space)

Most of Greenland is covered by ice up to 3 kilometres thick but there is some tundra around the coastline. The wildfire is burning on tundra in the west of Greenland, near the small town of Sisimiut. The larger fire could be a result of melting permafrost, McCarty told Wildfire Today. As the once-frozen ground melts, the upper layers can dry out and become flammable if they are full of organic matter. Stef Lhermitte, a remote sensing expert at the Geoscience & Remote Sensing department (GRS) of Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands, said there is evidence of fires burning in Greenland over the past 17 years of MODIS satellite records kept by NASA.

“It certainly is the biggest one in the satellite record,” says remote-sensing scientist Stef Lhermitte of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. That record only goes back to 2000, but it could well turn out to be the biggest wildfire in Greenland’s history. The fire, first spotted by a pilot on 31 July, has taken researchers by surprise.  His initial analysis of satellite observations suggests there have been a few small wildfires in Greenland since 2000 but that over the past three years there has been a huge increase in the area burning.

Source: https://twitter.com/StefLhermitte/status/894618860032331776?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.climatecentral.org%2Fnews%2Fwildfire-burning-greenland-21686
Smoke spotted over Greenland by plane (Source: http://sermitsiaq.ag/se-billeder-naturbrand-udvikler-kraftig-roeg)


No doubt then that our house is burning. The question now is: where are we looking?


More information?

  • Canada wildfires from space and ground – Seeing beyond the flames: a series of observations here
  • Wildfires in French Mediterranean region observed from MODIS here
  • Stef Lhermite research: website & Twitter account
  • Video “Our home is burning” by former French President Jacques (subtitles in English) at the Earth summit in Johannesburg in 2002 here
  • Largest ever wildfire in Greenland seen burning from space here

  • There’s a Wildfire Burning in West Greenland Right Now, from Climate Central, here
  • Smoke and fire spotted spotted on 31st July 2017 by plane here

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