From the satellite shot, it appears as though Lake Baikal is burning…
(Massive wildfires surrounding Lake Baikal spew huge columns of smoke into the air masking the lake and sending off thousand-mile long clouds of gray from the burning forests and permafrost. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)
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Lake Baikal. A great 350 mile long body of water sitting amidst the lands of southeastern Siberia. It’s the largest reservoir of fresh water in the world. From the satellite eye floating far above, it usually appears as a graceful splash of blue among the green hills and plains of summertime.
But today, this enormous lake is almost completely shrouded by smoke. Not a hint of blue. All is steely gray from the smokes vomited out by permafrost and forest fires surrounding the lake. Fires that are old and long-burning. Fires that began back in April when locals reported instances where the dry land — likely thawed and dried out sections of permafrost and duff overburden — “burned like grass.”
A Russian Emergency
During mid-August, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev helplessly vented his anger at Russian fire response authorities who seemed unable to deal with the disastrous blazes raging around Lake Baikal. He ordered Puchkov, a top Russian emergency response official, to “Fly there to deal with this…” while making a broader accusation that officials had been ‘complacent’ in dealing with the disaster. Medvedev added in his August 14 statement:
“Unfortunately, as usual in August we have a … number of problems. The situation this year is really hot when it comes to fires. This week fires [were] fought in Yakutia, near Gelendzhik in the Krasnodar region. Now in Siberia and the Far East large wildfires are blazing. [The] most difficult situation[s] [are] in the republics of Buryatia, Tyva, in the Irkutsk region, the TransBaikal region and the Chukotka Autonomous District.”
Contrary to Medvedev’s statement, facing off against large fires in August was not a typical situation for Russia. At least until about the mid 2000s when permafrost thaw began to really ramp up as human-forced warming of the climate provided extra heat and fuels for wildfire ignition. Since that time, Russia has been forced to deploy thousands of firefighters on a yearly basis.
It’s a problem extra resources alone will not be able to solve. For the burning comes due to added atmospheric heat thawing permafrost and providing billions and billions of tons of additional wildfire fuels by turning what was once ice into a peat-like under layer. This thawing creates an understory fuel for the fires spreading over large sections of Siberia. Now, trees will often burn all the way to the roots and the newly thawed land itself will burn to a depth of three feet or deeper. Even worse, some of these fires will continue to smolder beneath the snow and ice throughout Winter — only to explode over the land once again during Springtime.
Such is all-too certainly the case with the massive fires now surrounding and endangering Lake Baikal. Medvedev’s rants aside, it’s a situation that is now endemic to the thawing permafrost itself. One we will have to deal with and one whose outcomes we can only solve if we halt carbon emissions and bring Earth back into temperature ranges that are more natural to the Holocene.
A Threat to the Lake’s Water Supply
(‘The sky is aglow with uncontrolled burning.’ Lake Baikal residents sit helplessly by the waters edge as monstrous plumes of smoke blot out both sky and sun. Image source: The Siberian Times.)
Russians often call Lake Baikal ‘the Jewel of Siberia.’ It’s a jewel that contains 20 percent of all the fresh water on Planet Earth. So it’s understandable why they’re desperate to save it. But the massive fires, spewing out volcano-like plumes of smoke and ash, are, sadly, a threat to this beautiful and valuable resource. For, according to reports from Mikhail Slipenchuk — Russia’s deputy head of ecology and natural resources, near-shore burning wildfires can often cut off the lake’s water arteries. The result is a reduction of water flows to the lake and its ultimate diminishing.
Unfortunately, Lake Baikal water levels were already dropping due to a combination of persistent drought and over-use of water resources well before this Summer’s epic wildfires. Now the fires cast yet another pall over one more threatened fresh water source.
‘It feels like doomsday’, said one eyewitness to the large fires raging all about the precious water source.
Hat Tip to RedSky