Almost 10 million hectares of land are on fire in Siberia

Russia has seen an increase in forest fires in recent years due to rising summer temperatures and a historic drought. Now the sky in Yakutia is glowing an eerie amber color as forest fires continue to rage there.

In recent years, summer temperatures in Russia have reached triple digits, despite the fact that it is one of the coldest places on Earth.

Since the beginning of spring, forest fires have engulfed the taiga forests in Siberia. The Republic of Sakha in northeastern 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 are now burning, with only one fire having scorched an area of 2.5 million acres, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The fires are burning so intensely that huge swaths of smoke block sunlight. For the first time in recorded history, smoke from fires in Siberia has spread thousands of miles and reached the North Pole, the Independent reported.

The Siberian wildfires are larger than this season’s fires in Greece, Turkey, the United States and Canada combined. Locals in Yakutia have been on a state of emergency for weeks as the smoke continues to smother cities, even those thousands of miles away.

In recent years, summer temperatures in Russia have reached triple digits, despite the fact that it is one of the coldest places on Earth. The intensifying hot weather has melted the permafrost and, as a result, caused numerous fires, the Associated Press reported. The warming climate, combined with 150 years of drought and strong winds, has created the best conditions for the taiga forests to turn into fuel for fires.

This summer, after dry and extremely hot weather, temperatures in the Sakha-Yakutia region reached +39C, setting a record for several consecutive days.

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. A smoky haze was also seen 1,200 miles from the capital of Mongolia and 1,864 miles from the North Pole, NPR correspondent Sharon Pruitt-Young reports.

Uncontrolled wildfires

In Russia, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment keeps records only of forest fires that threaten populated areas and does not account for fires in grasslands and agricultural land, the Post reported. Authorities are not required to extinguish fires in areas far from populated areas, which are also called control zones. Fires away from populated areas are allowed to burn if the damage would not be worth the cost of containment.

Local residents and environmentalists argue that this inaction allows authorities to downplay the severity of the fire problem.

“For years, officials and opinion leaders have been saying that fires are normal, that the taiga is always burning, and there’s no need to make a big deal out of it. People are used to it,” says Alexei Yaroshenko, a forestry expert with the environmental nonprofit Greenpeace Russia, according to the Washington Post.

The news and media also rarely report on what is happening, so many fires go unreported and local residents often don’t know the extent of some fires.

Yaroshenko said fires are left burning if they are too dangerous to fight or because of a lack of funding to maintain firefighters, so much of the forests in the far north remain unprotected.

Firefighters fight fires with very little equipment, and planes are rarely used. Reinforcements are being sent in from other areas, but it’s still not enough, so many locals have volunteered to help, Patrick Rivell reports for ABC News.

“I’ve lived for 40 years and I don’t remember fires like this,” Afanasy Yefremov, a teacher from Yakutsk, tells ABC News. “There are fires everywhere, and not enough people.”

There are other reasons why the fires have reached such proportions. Some fires arise naturally from lightning strikes, but officials estimate that more than 70 percent of the fires are caused by human actions, such as smoking and making fires, the Associated Press reported. The forestry administration controls fires to clear the area 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 fires are related to illegal and legal logging and difficulties in monitoring. Forests in Siberia are so vast that it can be difficult to spot a fire, according to the Associated Press.

What happens next?

Siberian wildfires naturally occur as part of an annual cycle, but climate scientists see this year’s fires as a sign that future fires will be larger. Especially given the amount of carbon released during these wildfires on an already warming planet, the Post writes.

Last year, when wildfires swept across Siberia, an estimated 450 million tons of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere. This year, cumulative wildfires emitted more than 505 million tons of CO2, and the fire season isn’t over yet, reports Tom Metcalfe of Live Science.

Russia could face extreme weather events – heat waves, wildfires and flooding – as global warming intensifies, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Russia as a whole is warming 2.5 times faster than the rest of the planet. This statistic is alarming because 65% of Russia is covered by permafrost, which contains large amounts of carbon and methane.

Melting permafrost releases stored greenhouse gases, which in turn warms the planet and causes the permafrost to melt even more.

Even if global carbon emissions decrease dramatically, one-third of Siberia’s permafrost will melt by the end of the century, according to the Post.

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