Siberia Is on Fire—and It’s Only May

Wildfires near Oymyakon, Sakha Republic, Russia, on May 2, 2021.
Wildfires near Oymyakon, Sakha Republic, Russia, on May 2, 2021.
Image: Pierre Markuse/Flickr

It looks like wildfires in Siberia are starting up again—and some fires that never went out after last summer are starting to poke their heads out of the snow. Very normal and cool!

Advertisement

Last week, authorities put Novobirsk’s 1.7 million residents under what’s known as a “black sky” air quality warning as smoke from nearby wildfires blanketed the city. In late April, the Siberian Times reported that 27 houses were destroyed in the city of Kemerovo and 50 in Russia’s third-largest city of Novosibirsk, with more destruction in other surrounding districts.

As summer approaches, fires in Siberia like these are showing no signs of slowing down—and are sparking in even colder areas north. Images gathered by the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites on Sunday and posted to Twitter by the EU’s Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space account show a group of wildfires clustered near Oymyakon, a rural area known for being one of the coldest places on Earth. Other satellite images grabbed from Copernicus Sentinel data show fire hotspots igniting among snow-capped landscapes.

You can probably guess that Siberia—especially regions around the Arctic Circle—really isn’t supposed to burn this much. But temperatures in Siberia broke all sorts of records last summer, and scientific analyses have found that the heat in the area was made 600 times (!) more likely due to climate change. The fires that burned in the Arctic last year released a record amount of carbon dioxide that was equivalent to the entire annual emissions of Spain, creating a dangerous feedback loop.

Balmy temperatures in the region continued into the winter: The island of Svalbard in Norway’s Arctic region hit its highest-ever temperature for November last year, registering 49 degrees Fahrenheit (9.4 degrees Celsius), which would be warm for November even where I am in New York. Temperatures in the high Arctic averaged 11.9 degrees Fahrenheit (6.6 degrees Celsius) above normal this winter, according to data collected by NASA. (In NASA’s case, it defines normal as the period from 1951 to 1980.)

A number of fires in recent years have ignited and spread in areas with peat, a carbon-rich soil that can release its stores into the atmosphere when burned. All this new peat-based fire activity is linked to some very weird phenomena—namely what’s known as zombie fires. Peat fires can continue to smoulder underground for long periods of time, using up the carbon in the soil until they can reach the surface again. Experts have speculated that these fires could reignite into bigger blazes in warmer months.

At the end of February, the Siberian Times took footage of a zombie fire burning outside of Khandyga, a small town on the Aldan River, which they posted Sunday to Twitter. The video is pretty wild. If you’ve ever wondered what digging under the snow in minus-22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-30 degrees Celsius) temperatures to find burning peat looks like, check it out. The fire filmed by the Siberian Times was originally spotted by locals in November, and the outlet suggests there could be some link between these long-lasting fires that won’t die in this region and the wildfires burning now. (Arctic fire experts suggested it could be the result of human activities as well.)

Advertisement

Earlier this year that they may have developed an effective biodegradable solution to help firefighters extinguish zombie fires, which is great. But given Siberia itself is more than 5 million square miles (13 million square kilometers) and includes areas that are hard for firefighters to access, that solution right now is kind of like spritzing a wildfire with a spray bottle. And as Siberia warps under new pressures from climate change, we can only wonder what fresh horrors this summer’s wildfire season will bring.

Writing about climate change, renewable energy, and Big Oil/Big Gas/Big Everything for Earther. Formerly of the Center for Public Integrity & Nexus Media News. I'm very tall & have a very short dog.

DISCUSSION

rvincent1960
Times up, time to leave!

Peat bogs accumulate incredibly slowly, building up over thousands of years to quite impressive depths. This region in Siberia is the largest peat bog region on earth with the western lowlands accounting for something like a million square kilometers of bogs. Prior to us fucking up the climate they were a pretty decent carbon sink, western Siberia is credited to have been soaking up something like 50 megatons of carbon a year.

Except now that’s all out the window, instead of a net carbon sink the bogs are not only producing carbon as they burn but being destroyed so they no longer drawn down carbon. It’s like a turbocharged feedback loop on steroids.

And the worst part, as the Arctic warms and dries up Siberia conditions for the bogs will disappear so they won’t grow back either.

In scientific terms, we’re boned.