Russia’s less than fearsome winter this year has drawn international attention. From the slushy snow at the Sochi games to December photos of grassy city parks in Siberia with locals posing in bikinis near ice-free rivers, Russia’s frozen mystique isn’t quite what it used to be.
And with a record-braking warm spring in parts of Siberia, experts are warning that 2014 could be an epic year for forest fires.
According to the Siberian Times, Natural Resources Minister Sergei Donskoi has warned that this year’s fire season could be one for the record books.
“The forest fire situation is tense in Russia this year,” Donskoi said at a conference chaired by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. “Due to a shortage of precipitation the forest fire season has begun almost one and a half months ahead of the norm.”
Seventeen forest fires have already been reported across 2,000 hectares (for some perspective, that’s about 5,000 acres), and across Siberia last week century-old temperature records were shattered. In Siberia’s third largest city, Krasnoyarsk, it was 70ºF, and in Abakan, the capital city of Khakassia, it was a shocking 77ºF — temperatures typical of mid-summer for this area. Before this unusually balmy spring, the warmest temperatures these cities have seen since record keeping begin in 1014 were 60º and 65ºF respectively. That record was set back in 1938.
“It was the hottest April 1 on record for several western Siberian cities, including Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Kemerovo, Barnaul and Gorno-Altaysk,” Renad Yagudin, of the Novosibirsk meteorological service told the Siberian Times. “The average temperature in Russia increased 0.4 degrees every ten years. Overall, the temperature in the area is 6.5–16.2 degrees Fahrenheit (2–9 Celsius) higher than the record set in 1989.”
Siberian wildfires may seem like a very remote threat to most of the world, but what happens in this region has consequences on a global scale.
Smoke from wildfires in Siberia is often lofted high enough into the atmosphere that it travels across the Pacific Ocean, blanketing the western coast of North America with hazy, hard to breathe air. In 2012, smoke from Siberia caused record ground-level ozone in British Columbia.
Smoke can also drift north from Siberia depositing soot across the fragile Arctic ecosystem. Darker, dirty ice reflects less solar radiation back into space. Ice that absorbs more radiation melts faster and, in turn, less ice in the Arctic can affect weather patterns around the world. When land-based ice melts it also contributes to sea level rise.
Wildfires hasten the thawing of vital permafrost as well. Globally, the trees and frozen soils of the boreal forests lock up an incredible 30 percent of the world’s carbon. But when permafrost melts it releases vast amounts of carbon dioxide and methane — leading many scientist to fear that these ecosystems may switch from being a giant carbon sink to being an unprecedented carbon source.
The latest United Nations International Panel on Climate Change report predicted increasing ‘permafrost degradation in Siberia’ as one the globe’s key trends in the coming years.