In Russia, there has been an increase in the number of forest fires in recent years due to rising summer temperatures and historical drought. Now the sky in Yakutia glows with an eerie amber color, as forest fires continue to rage there.
In recent years, summer temperatures in Russia have reached three-digit numbers, despite the fact that it is one of the coldest places on Earth.
Since the beginning of spring, forest fires have engulfed taiga forests in Siberia. The Republic of Sakha in the north-east of Russia has suffered the most. By mid-July, residents of Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic, were breathing smoke from more than 300 separate forest fires.
Nearly 10 million acres of land are currently on fire, with just one fire burning an area of 2.5 million acres, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The fires burn so intensely that huge streaks of smoke block the sunlight. For the first time in recorded history, smoke from fires in Siberia spread thousands of miles and reached the North Pole, the Independent reports.
Siberian wildfires are more widespread than this season's wildfires in Greece, Turkey, the United States and Canada combined. Local residents of Yakutia have been in a state of emergency for several weeks, as the smoke continues to choke cities, even those that are thousands of kilometers away.
In recent years, summer temperatures in Russia have reached three-digit numbers, despite the fact that it is one of the coldest places on Earth. The intensifying hot weather melted the permafrost and, as a result, caused numerous fires, reports the Associated Press. The warming climate, combined with a 150-year drought and strong winds, have created the best conditions for turning taiga forests into fuel for fires.
This summer, after dry and extremely hot weather, the temperature in the Sakha-Yakutia region reached + 39C, setting a record for several days in a row.
The intensity of the fire led to the closure of airports, roads and the evacuation of people. The area of smoke is so large that NASA estimates it extends 2,000 miles from east to west and 2,500 miles from north to south. The smoky haze was also seen 1,200 miles from the Mongolian capital and 1,864 miles from the North Pole, according to NPR correspondent Sharon Pruitt-Young.
Uncontrolled forest fires
In Russia, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment keeps records of only those forest fires that threaten human settlements, and does not take into account fires in meadows and agricultural land, the Post reports. The authorities are not required to put out fires in areas remote from human settlements, also called zones of control. Fires located far from populated areas are allowed to burn if the damage is not worth the cost of containing the fire.
Local residents and environmentalists argue that such inaction allows the authorities to downplay the severity of the fire problem.
“For many years, officials and opinion leaders have said that fires are normal, that the taiga is always on fire, and there is no need to make a problem out of it. People are used to it,” says Aleksey Yaroshenko, a forestry expert at an environmental non-profit organization. Greenpeace Russia, writes the Washington Post.
News and media also rarely report on what is happening, so many fires go unreported, and local residents are often unaware of the extent of some fires.
Yaroshenko said that fires remain on fire if it is too dangerous to deal with them or due to lack of funding for the maintenance of firefighters, so most of the forests in the far north remain unprotected.
Firefighters fight fire with very little equipment and aircraft are rarely used. Reinforcements are being sent in from other areas, but this is still not enough, so many locals have volunteered to help, Patrick Rivell reports for ABC News.
“I have lived 40 years and I don’t remember such fires,” Afanasy Efremov, a teacher from Yakutsk, tells ABC News. "It is burning everywhere, but there are not enough people."
There are other reasons why the fires have reached this magnitude. Some fires start naturally from lightning strikes, but officials estimate that more than 70% of fires are caused by human activities such as smoking and making bonfires, the Associated Press reported. The forestry administration controls fires to clear space for new plant growth and reduce fuel for fires, but they are often poorly managed and sometimes out of control.
Other reasons for the increase in the number of fires are related to illegal and legal deforestation and monitoring difficulties. The forests in Siberia are so vast that it can be difficult to spot a fire, the Associated Press reports.
What happens next?
Siberian wildfires naturally occur in an annual cycle, but climatologists see this year's fires as a sign that fires will be bigger in the future. Especially considering the amount of carbon released during these wildfires on an already warmer planet, the Post writes.
Last year, when wildfires swept across Siberia, an estimated 450 million tons of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere. Cumulative forest fires have emitted over 505 million tonnes of CO2 this year and the fire season is not over yet, reports Tom Metcalfe of Live Science.
According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Russia may face extreme weather events - high heat, wildfires and floods - as global warming intensifies.
Russia as a whole is warming 2.5 times faster than the rest of the planet. These statistics are alarming as 65% of Russia's territory is covered with permafrost, which contains large amounts of carbon and methane.
When permafrost melts, accumulated greenhouse gases are released, which, in turn, leads to a warming of the planet and an even greater melting of permafrost.
Even if global carbon emissions plummet, a third of Siberian permafrost will melt by the end of the century, the Post reported.