Permafrost. Ground frozen for millennia. An enormous deposit of organic carbon forming a thick, peat-like under-layer.
Forced to warm at an unprecedented rate through the massive burning of heat-trapping gasses by human beings, this layer is now rapidly thawing, providing an amazing source of heat and fuel for wildfire ignition.
Joe Romm over at Climate Progress has long called this region ‘Permamelt.’ But, with a doubling of the number of wildfires for the high Arctic and an extension of the permafrost fire season into early April this year, we may well consider this to be a zone of now, near permanent, burning — Permaburn.
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(Massive outbreak of permafrost wildfires in Russia this week have left up to 34 villages in smoldering ruins. Image from Khakassia, Russia via The Siberian Times.)
For Khakassia, Russia the story this week has been one of unprecedented fire disaster.
Khakassia is located along a southern region of Siberia bordering northern Mongolia and Kazakhstan. It is an area that typically experiences cold temperatures — even in summer time. An area of frozen ground representing the southern boundary for Siberian permafrost. There, as with much of Siberia, temperatures have been forced to rapidly warm by human greenhouse gas emissions. And this added heat forcing has contributed to ever-more-powerful and extensive wildfires as the permafrost thawed — providing an ever-increasing volume of fuels for wildfires.
Last year, Siberian wildfires also came far too early — impacting a broad region near Lake Baikal, Russia during late April. But this year, the fires have come near the start of April. An extension of the burning season in Siberia inexorably toward the winter-spring boundary.
(Extensive wildfires burn though Siberian Khakassia on April 12 of 2015. In the image, we can see down through a break in the cloud deck to view smoke plumes from scores of wildfires raging throughout the region. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 120 miles and the largest burn scars range from 3-5 miles across. As Siberian permafrost burn season progresses, we can expect fires that belch smoke plumes across the Northern Hemisphere emitting from burn scars as large as 30 miles or more across. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)
This weekend, temperatures in Khakassia soared to 25 degrees Celsius — 15-20 degrees Celsius above average for daytime temperatures in this region even during recent warmer years (1979-2000). A near 80 degree Fahrenheit reading that would be warm in summertime — but one that cropped up in early April as a result of powerful and hot south to north air flows transporting heat across Asia and into the Arctic. These flows wound through Central Asia, warming Khakassia to record temperatures in their inexorable surge toward the pole.
The heat over Khakassia rapidly thawed surface vegetation, extending warmth deep into the thawing permafrost layer. The result was an outbreak of massive wildfires. Beginning this weekend the blazes have, so far, raged through 34 villages and been blamed for 1300 destroyed homes, the loss of nearly 4000 herd animals, 900 human injuries and 20 deaths. Such a fierce and destructive fire outbreak during summer would have been unprecedented. For this kind of event to occur in April, at the edge of Siberian winter, is nothing short of outlandishly strange.
Russian authorities have blamed the fires on a combination of hot weather and human burning. It is a tradition for Russian farmers to burn to clear fields during this time of year. And it is this practice that media is focusing on. However, traditional burning during spring did not historically result in the kinds of massive blazes that ripped through Khakassia earlier this week. Russian farmers, in this case, are unwittingly flinging matches into a tinderbed of rapidly thawing compost. A pile of warming and chemically volatile peat-like perma-burn that is providing more and more fuel for intense fires.