Wired discusses Want to Fight the Zombie Fire Apocalypse? Weaponize Math. Peat fires smolder in the ground for months, suddenly emerging as surface wildfires. New simulations reveal their strange life, death, and reanimation.
THE LARGEST FIRES on Earth aren’t the monsters that have been burning across California and Australia, but the zombies smoldering in the soils of the Arctic and tropics. Undead fires live on in peat: wet, carbon-rich soil made from dead vegetation that accumulates over hundreds or even thousands of years. When it dries out—as it is increasingly doing on a warming planet—peat fires can fester, slowly spreading both laterally and vertically for months and releasing astonishing amounts of greenhouse gases. In the Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, peat fires even smolder under the snow throughout winter and reanimate in the spring, alighting as new surface wildfires. Hence, zombie fires.
“The magic of cellular automata is that by aggregating very simple rules in a space, it actually is able to capture what is called an ‘emergent behavior,’ which is a behavior that is extremely complex,” says Imperial College London engineer Guillermo Rein, coauthor of a new paper describing the work in the journal Proceedings of the Combustion Institute. “You can do what is called ‘super real-time’—in the sense that you get results of the future location of the fire before the fire is already there. If you want to help firefighters predict the movement of a fire, you have to have super real-time.”