More Than 40 Million Acres of Land Have Burned in Siberia

Editor’s Note, August 20, 2021: This story was updated to reflect updated fire reports from Greenpeace Russia.

As of early spring, wildfires have been surging through the taiga forest in Siberia. The region hardest hit was the Republic of Sakha in northeastern Russia. Also known as Yakutia, the area had 250 fires burning across 2,210 miles of land on July 5. By mid-July, residents of Yakutsk, the capitol of Sakha, were breathing in smoke from over 300 separate wildfires, as reported by the Siberian Times.

As of August 16, more than 40 million acres (17 million hectares) have burned, breaking a previous record—well before the fire season will end—set in 2012, according to Greenpeace Russia. One fire alone scorched an area as wide as 2.5 million acres, reports Ann M. Simmons for the Wall Street Journal. The fires are burning so intensely that vast swaths of smoke blocked sunlight. For the first time in recorded history, smoke from the fires in Siberia have drifted thousands of miles away to reach the North Pole, reports Oliver Carroll for the Independent.

The Siberian wildfires are more substantial than this season’s blazes in Greece, Turkey, the United States, and Canada combined. Local residents from Yakutia have been under a state of emergency for weeks as smoke continued to smother cities, even those that are thousands of miles away, reports the Moscow Times.

Climate Change and Increasing Temperatures

In recent years, summer temperatures in Russia have seen record highs in the triple digits—despite being one of the coldest places on Earth. Many experts suspect it’s a result of human-driven climate change. The increasing hot weather melted permafrost and, as a result, fueled the numerous fires, report Daria Litvinova and Vladimir Isachenkov for the Associated Press. Per the Moscow Times, a warming climate combined with a 150-year drought and high winds created the best conditions to turn the taiga forest into fire fuel.

Temperatures over the year range between -44 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit in Yakutsk. This past summer, after arid and extremely hot weather patterns, the Sakha-Yakutia region reached 102 degrees Fahrenheit, setting records for several consecutive days, per the Associated Press.

The inferno’s intensity has closed airports, roads and prompted evacuations. The smoke’s cover is so vast that NASA estimated it measured 2,000 miles from east to west and 2,500 miles from north to south. The smokes’ haze was also spotted 1,200 miles away in Mongolia’s capitol as well as 1,864 miles to the North Pole, reports NPR’s Sharon Pruitt-Young. Satellite images taken by NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite show the smokes’ reach in color detail.

Uncontrolled Forest Fires

In Russia, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology only keeps track of forest fires that threaten populated areas and omits any fires on grassland plains or farmland, per the Post. Authorities are not required to extinguish fires in regions far away from settlements, also called control zones, per the Moscow Times. Fires located far away from populations are allowed to burn if the damage is not considered worth the costs of containing the fire.

Locals and environmentalists have argued that the inaction allows authorities to downplay the urgency of the fires.

“For years, officials and opinion leaders have been saying that fires are normal, that the taiga is always burning, and there is no need to make an issue out of this. People are used to it,” says Alexei Yaroshenko, a forestry expert at Greenpeace Russia, an environmental nonprofit organization, to Robyn Dixon for the Washington Post.

News and media stations also rarely report on the events, so many fires go unreported, and locals often do not know the extent of some fires.

Yaroshenko told the Post that fires are left to burn if they are too dangerous to fight or because of lack of funding to support firefighters, so the majority of the forests to the far north are left unprotected.

Firefighters are battling the blazes with very little equipment, and planes are used only rarely. Reinforcements have been sent from other areas, but it is still not enough, so many locals have volunteered to help, reports Patrick Reevell for ABC News.

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“I have lived 40 years, and I don’t remember such fires,” Afanasy Yefremov, a teacher from Yakutsk, tells ABC News. “Everywhere is burning, and there aren’t enough people.”

There are various other reasons as to why the fires exploded to this magnitude. Some fires are sparked naturally by lightning strikes, but officials estimate that over 70% are caused by human activates like smoking and campfires, the Associated Press reports. Forest authorities do control fire burns to clear areas for new plant growth and to reduce fire fuel, but they are often poorly managed and sometimes burn out of control.

Other reasons for the increased fires range from both illegal and legal logging and monitoring difficulties. Forests in Siberia are so extensive that spotting fires can be difficult, per the Associated Press.

What Happens Next?

Siberian wildfires naturally occur as part of an annual cycle, but climate officials see this year’s blazes as a sign of more enormous fire risks in the future. Especially with the amount of carbon released during these wildfires on an already warming planet, writes the Post. Last year when wildfires rolled through Siberia, an estimated 450 million tons of carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere. This year, the combined wildfires released more than 505 million tons of CO2, and the fire season is still not over, Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe reports.

According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Russia can expect to face extreme weather events—like intense heatwaves, wildfires, and floods—as global warming intensifies, reports the Moscow Times. Russia, in general, is warming 2.5 times faster than the rest of the planet. This statistic is alarming because 65 percent of Russia is covered in permafrost, which holds large amounts of carbon and methane. As permafrost melts, stored greenhouse gases are released, which in turn warms the planet, leading to more permafrost melt, per the Moscow Times. Even if global carbon emissions fall drastically, a third of Siberian permafrost will melt by the end of the century, the Post reports.

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