“For one month we are suffocating from the smoke. The weather is hot, and there is a strong smell of burning…” — Residents of Bratsk, northwest of Lake Baikal, in a petition to Vladimir Putin pleading him to fight the fires now raging there.
Let’s take a snapshot of the current moment from the climate change perspective: This year, global temperatures will probably hit between 1.2 and 1.25 degrees Celsius hotter than 1880s averages. This new heat, in a range likely not seen for 115,000 years, is catapulting us into dangerous new climate states. We’re starting to see the hard changes happen. Weather is growing more extreme, wildfires are worsening, the seas are rising, the glaciers are melting, and ocean health is declining. Threats of destabilization and disruption are ramping up. But compared to what we will see in the future if the world continues to warm, if we continue to burn fossil fuels, the seemingly rough changes we are experiencing now are minor and easy to manage.
These are the early, easy outliers of human-forced climate change. But for some, even for a nation as powerful as Russia, certain events have already overwhelmed emergency response capabilities.
(Fire season should have ended by late August around the region of Lake Baikal in Russia. However, due to climate change-related influences, massive fires continue to burn through September. The above image is from today, September 28. Bottom edge of frame represents approximately 600 miles. Lake Baikal is visible in the right side of frame. Smoke from large fires currently covering approximately 2.5 million acres is visible throughout the shot. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)
Climate Change Spikes Fire Incidence in Siberia
Over the past decade or so, a rapid warming of Siberia has resulted in a dramatic increase in fire incidence. The vast boreal forests were thrust into hotter, dryer conditions by a human-forced warming of the globe. Meanwhile, permafrost thaw added its own massive and growing volumes of peat-like fuel for burning. As the years progressed, very large fires have erupted with rising frequency. Mostly underreported, according to Greenpeace and independent satellite analysis by experts, these fires have covered millions of acres year after year after year:
“If you look at the whole area over the past 30 years, there’s a significant increase in burned area that is very clear by the early 2000s,” Susan Conrad, a former U.S. Forest Service scientist who has spent decades researching the impact of fire on Siberia, told ClimateWire.
Often, fighting such fires has required the effort of thousands of emergency responders supported by hundreds of pieces of equipment. As a result, the growing size of these fires and the lengthening of the season in which they burn has put a strain on the coffers of an already cash-strapped Russia. Firefighting has thus been cut or set aside for instances when a city, town or vital piece of infrastructure requires defending. More and more, these great fires have been abandoned to burn on, uncontrolled.
2016 Lake Baikal Fires Too Dangerous to Fight
This year around the region of Lake Baikal, an unrelenting (climate change-related) drought combined with abnormal heat to produce massive fires. The fires raged and flared throughout the summer. As the typical wildfire season came to an end during late August, the fires continued to burn and spread. According to Greenpeace, the fires burning during September in this region alone covered nearly 5 million acres. That’s an area about the size of Massachusetts. Satellite shots of the massive fires were dramatic, revealing plumes of dense smoke spewing out over hundreds or even thousands of miles. Residents of cities and towns around Lake Baikal experienced terrible conditions due to a suffocating pall of dense smoke covering the area.
Despite the risk to public health and increasing cases where schools, communities and infrastructure were threatened by the fires, the Russian Emergencies Ministry has claimed that such large fires are increasingly uncontrollable. Spokespeople with the agency note that the fires are so intense that they present a danger to firefighting personnel. According to Radio Free Europe:
Aleksandr Bruykhanov, senior researcher at the Forestry Institute in Krasnoyarsk, told the Siberian Times that massive wildfires have become more frequent and cannot be fully controlled by the government. He said they will only be extinguished when rain returns to the region. …”The Emergencies Ministry won’t be able to help here but will only cause some extra work for foresters, who will have to rescue rescuers.” [emphasis added]
For One Month We are Suffocating From Smoke
Hundreds of firefighters have been deployed throughout the region in isolated efforts to stem the more eminent blazes. Near the city of Bratsk, 600 firefighters and about 123 pieces of heavy equipment were reported to be engaged with the fires on September 23. Unfortunately the firefighting has, thus far, been mostly unsuccessful.
(High carbon monoxide readings north and west of Lake Baikal, Russia on September 28. This expansive plume of carbon monoxide is coming from very large fires burning in the region. Residents in a nearby city recently complained of carbon monoxide poisoning in a petition to Vladimir Putin to fight the fires. Emergencies Ministry spokespersons have claimed that the fires are increasingly uncontainable and that the best hope for stopping the fires is when rains return to the area. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)
Failure to control the massive burning has resulted in abysmal air quality for the region. In some cases, life-threatening conditions have been reported, with adults and children hospitalized. In Bratsk, a city of 250,000 people, thousands of residents are complaining of stifling smoke and incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning. A heavy pall of dense smoke has hung over the city for more than a month. The conditions there are so bad that 3,000 people have signed a petition to Vladimir Putin, urging him to deploy more resources to fight the fires, and stating that:
For one month we are suffocating from the smoke. The weather is hot, and there is a strong smell of burning and smoke. It is not possible to open windows, we cannot go out because we soon feel dizziness… Some adults and children are in hospital with severe carbon monoxide poisoning. We are for clean air! We want to breathe. We have that right. Do not remain indifferent to our health and our future!
Signs of Exhaustion at the Start of a Rough Climate Future
Exhaustion of emergency response resources is one of the big threats posed by climate change. In instances where entire regions see extreme weather conditions that are far outside the norm for an extended period of time, such as as severe droughts, floods, and fires, instances of exhaustion are more likely to occur. Exhaustion also occurs when events appear that are too large or intense to manage. It appears that firefighting efforts in Russia are starting to show some signs of exhaustion. Not good, especially considering the fact that these conditions are tame compared to what will happen in future years without some very serious climate change mitigation and response efforts now.
Whether they realize it or not, the residents of Bratsk are living at the start of a much rougher climate future. And they are just now starting to see a hint of bad conditions that will get worse as the world continues to warm and Siberia becomes one of the places to see the worst of it. It’s a situation caused by the very fossil-fuel burning that Putin currently promotes. This crisis of warming will cause more forests to burn, the fires to continue to enlarge, and the peat-like permafrost to become a fuel as it thaws.
The only way to stop this trend is to halt global temperature rise. That requires a very heavy lift, an international effort on a scale which the world has not yet fully committed to — an effort that would result in the fossil fuels Putin seeks to exploit being left in the ground in favor of far more benevolent energy sources.
Hat tip to mlparrish
Hat tip to Colorado Bob