As permafrost melts in intense heat, Russian Siberia burns – again

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At present, the University of British Columbia’s climatologist and tundra researcher, Greg Henry, was usually at Alexandra Fiord on the east-central coast of Ellesmere Island, Canada, knowing of near global warming in the Arctic.Instead, the pandemic kept its research team in Vancouver – and their attention shifted to observing the dramatic events unfolding across the Arctic Ocean in northern Siberia.

“It’s remarkable – it’s scary,” said Henry of the incredible series of high temperatures in the far north of Russia that broke records last month.

This week, a European Union climate monitoring project reported that temperatures in June were up to 10 degrees higher than usual in parts of the Russian Arctic, with an overall increase of five degrees.

The heat and dryness of the tundra also started large forest fires. Currently, 1.77 million hectares of land are burning and it is expected that the total area of ​​fires may eventually exceed the 17 million hectares burned in 2019.

It is equally striking that the fires are burning.

“We are now seeing these fires within 15 kilometers of the Arctic Ocean,” said Henry. “Usually there isn’t a lot of fuel to burn there because it’s cold in the ocean, so you can’t start fires as far north. ”

WATCH | Siberian heat wave, forest fires could have global consequences:

Siberia is normally one of the coldest places on Earth, but a recent heat wave is fueling large forest fires and raising concerns about what it is signaling for climate change. 2:11

This year, however, he said the heat had dried the soil enough to change the dynamics.

“It is a harbinger of what we are doing because the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. “

Environmental disaster

The huge bubble of hot air that parked over Siberia has remained remarkably stationary over northern Russia, which means that the Canadian Arctic has been largely spared from the soaring temperatures.

Members of the Russian aerial forest protection service are helping to put out a forest fire in the Krasnoyarsk region of Russia in this still image from an undated video obtained by Reuters on July 10. (Aerial forest protection service / Document to be distributed via Reuters)

“Alert, the northernmost weather station, rose to 14 or 15 degrees in mid-June when it should have been zero or two. So that could be a little bit of that spin of heat going down, ”said Henry.

But in Russia, the heat wave is changing the landscape with serious consequences.

In late May, extreme heat may have melted permafrost at an industrial site near the Arctic city of Norilsk, causing what some critics call one of Russia’s worst environmental disasters.

More than 20 million tonnes of diesel fuel escaped from a containment zone and turned the water of a nearby river into a deep red hue, prompting President Vladimir Putin to declare the state of emergency.

Rescuers are working on the site of a huge fuel leak in the river after a power plant accident, in this still image taken from a video, outside of Norilsk, Russia, June 2. (Severny Gorod / Reuters)

Putin fined the company and berated local officials for letting the spill happen, but damage to the polluted area can last for decades.

Fire damage

But it is the vast forests of Russia that seem to be suffering the most damage.

“The frequencies and intensities of fires in Siberia have increased significantly due to climate change,” said Anton Beneslavskiy, fire coordinator at Greenpeace Russia in Moscow.

“On this scale, fires are unmanageable. ”

Greenpeace has long argued that the Kremlin’s rules and policies on fighting wildfires have compounded the challenges of hotter, drier weather.

Russia has the largest forested area in the world, largely sparsely populated.

Greg Henry of UBC has been visiting the Canadian Arctic for almost 40 years, chronicling the impact of climate change. (Mike Zimmer / CBC)

Beneslavskiy said that a 2006 change to the Russian fire management law gave local authorities the legal right to ignore fires if there is a low risk to local people and that suppressing them is makes no economic sense.

He said the result is that the small fires that can be managed initially grow quickly to become extreme events.

“Annual disaster”

“This lack of will to resolve the problem leads us every year to disaster,” said Beneslavskiy.

” It’s a vicious circle. More fires produce more climate change and more climate change fuels more fires. ”

Editorials in local Siberian newspapers regularly call on the Putin government to invest more in fighting wildfires. After the disaster of last summer, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has promised to reconsider the policy of fighting fires.

Anton Beneslavskiy is a Moscow-based member of Greenpeace Russia who coordinates his response to forest fires in Russia. (Alexey Sergeev / CBC)

Since then, however, Greenpeace and other local environmental groups say nothing has changed.

Officials appointed by the Kremlin insist that they are throwing everything they have to contain the worst of wildfires, with more than 1,300 firefighters and 130 equipment deployed in the southern region of Krasnoyarsk alone Siberia, according to the TASS information service.

Another state-run report on NTV on Friday said local authorities plan to deploy 120 paratrooper firefighters from the air to help build firewalls.

The Russian economy is highly dependent on the resources of its Arctic region – in particular oil and gas – and it is the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, after the United States, India and China.

But while Russia has ratified the Paris climate agreement, there is no need to cut emissions as they are still below 1990 levels when the Soviet economy was highly industrialized.

Economic losses

The Moscow Times reports that economic losses from melting permafrost are expected to cost the Russian economy up to US $ 2.3 billion annually. The fires last year likely cost rural communities in the region close to $ 250 million.

Rescuers work at the site of a huge fuel leak in the river after an accident at a power plant outside Norilsk, Russia, in this photo posted on June 4, 2020. (Marine Rescue Service / Document at distribute via Reuters)

In March, Russia announced 29 measures it would take to address climate change on its vast landmass, but critics complained that efforts were more focused on the exploitation of Arctic natural resources than on mitigating the effects of global warming.

“They are actively looking for all the mineral and oil and gas deposits they can,” said Greg Henry of UBC. “We have not adopted this approach in our Arctic. ”

But the heat and the fires of Siberia – as bad as they are – don’t surprise Arctic veterans as much.

“I’ve been riding since 1980 and it scares me now to see how much has changed,” said Henry.

“It’s the new normal, rapid change. “

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