Heat over Siberia and parts of the Arctic Ocean is wreaking havoc on forests and could have impacts on sea ice. It’s possible that temperatures could crack the 90s in Siberia to end the week, which is bad news because the region is already a smoldering, smoky mess.
It’s the second time in two months that major wildfires have lit up northeast Russia. The latest round is clearly visible on satellite images, which show smoke spreading over an area roughly 1,250 miles (2011 kilometers) wide. The scope of the smoke dwarves the County Fire currently raging in California.
Siberia is no stranger to late spring and early summer blazes, but the current spate of fires is being helped along by persistent warmth. Temperatures have been above normal for the past week in large parts of northeastern Russia.
“There is a big ridge over the region, which is responsible for the current warmth,” Zack Labe, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Irvine who studies the region, told Earther.
A similar ridge locked in heat that left much of the U.S. suffering this week. But while we’ve been granted a bit of a reprieve in the U.S., Siberia could see temperatures crank up even higher in the coming days. Multiple models show that temperatures could be more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees Celsius) above normal on Friday, which would translate to highs around 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit (32-35 degrees Celsius).
“It is absolutely incredible and really one of the most intense heat events I’ve ever seen for so far north,” Nick Humphrey, a meteorologist who usually covers ocean storms, wrote on his blog earlier this week (h/t Capital Weather Gang).
Labe cautioned that at least the GFS, one commonly used model, tends to somewhat overestimate heat, so full-on beach weather might not materialize on the Arctic Ocean.
But whether temperatures are unusually high or off-the-charts high, the combination of heat and wildfire smoke poses a distinct risk for sea ice. We’ve already seen warm oceans and air gobble up ice way earlier than normal on both sides of the Arctic, from the Bering Sea in the west to the seas around Greenland in the east.
The current heat wave is affecting the Laptev Sea, which sits just north of Siberia. A large hole has emerged in the sea ice there, and it could grow in the coming days as heat takes its toll. Graphics created by Labe show ice in the Laptev Sea is already well below normal for this time of year.
Then there’s the smoke, which contains bits of ash and soot that will eventually fall out of the atmosphere. If these dark particles end up on ice, they can accelerate its melting by absorbing more of the sun’s energy than the previously white, reflective surface. In 2012, Siberian fires contributed to the most widespread surface melt of Greenland ever recorded. Ninety-seven percent of the ice sheet’s surface saw melting that summer.
Siberia is home to vast swaths of boreal forest, which ring the northern tier of the planet, including parts of Canada, Scandinavia, and Alaska. It also happens to be burning at a rate unprecedented in at least 10,000 years. The uptick in fire is driven in part by heat waves, which have seemingly become more common in the Arctic. While there are multiple factors driving the heat waves, research published earlier this year shows that freaky heat in 2016 was likely the direct result of climate change.