“We are Suffocating from Smoke” — For Russia, Climate Change is Already Producing Fires that are Too Big to Fight

“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.

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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.

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lake-baikal-wildfires-september-28-2016

(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.

lake-baikal-carbon-monoxide-spike

(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.

Links:

Wildfires Increasingly Consuming Siberian Forests, Scientists Warn

People in Bratsk Petition Kremlin over Pollution from Forest Fires

LANCE MODIS

Wildfires Scorch World’s Largest Freshwater Lake

Oil Pipelines Threatened by Wildfires Amid Disputes over the Scale of the Destruction

Earth Nullschool

Hat tip to mlparrish

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

 

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“A Crime Against Humanity” — Hothouse Wildfire Smoke Sickens 500,000 As Indonesian Officials Plan For Mass Evacuations

It’s official. In terms of economic damage and human displacement, the 2015 Indonesian wildfires are the worst that Island nation has ever experienced. Worse than even the terrible 1997 wildfires and possibly the worst wildfire disaster ever. And it’s all an upshot of what happens when slash and burn agriculture meets a once lush land now sweltering in a human hothouse world.

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There’s been something dreadfully wrong with Indonesia’s forests and peatlands ever since massive fires ignited across that island nation back in 1997. Back then, a monster El Nino — combined with heat from massive human greenhouse gas emissions — pushed the world to 0.7 to 0.8 C hotter than 1880s averages. Equatorial temperatures would never again fall to a normal threshold. And as the lands and surrounding oceans warmed, the dry season lengthened and the rainy season shortened.

Slash and burn agriculture, a mainstay practice for the region ever since industrial farms began to take root there in the middle 20th Century, always generated some fires. But before human greenhouse emissions brought on added heat and dryness, the situation was one of slow degradation rather than violent conflagration. Even during the dry season, mid-to-late 20th Century moisture levels were much higher and fires tended to be naturally suppressed by the lush wetness of the region. But now, with the added heat of human warming creating droughts in the peatlands, slash and burn agriculture essentially amounted to throwing burning embers into a powder keg.

Kuala Lumpur

(Kuala Lumpur, Maylasia swelters under peat-fire smog during late September of 2015. Ever since 1997, Indonesia has suffered severe seasonal wildfires. These fires are often set by corporate and individual farmers who use the fires to clear land. However, increased heat and drought caused by an increasingly vicious human-forced warming of the globe are creating a climate in which these fires, once set, tend to rage out of control. Image source: ALERT.)

As the heatwaves and droughts lengthened with amplifying human-forced warming, wildfires became endemic. Each year, the farmers burned more peatlands. Each year, the peatlands belched toxic smoke into the air, burning deeper and deeper into the carbon-rich ground, adding to and compounding the problem of human fossil fuel emissions and causing mass sickness and hospitalizations. In this dangerous new equatorial hothouse climate, even under the rains, the ground still smoldered, waiting for the longer, hotter dry seasons to return before again erupting into flame. All throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the situation worsened as temperatures back-filled into the new upper range set by the 1997 El Nino and then advanced still further.

Now, human greenhouse gas emissions are again amplifying peak global temperatures as a Monster El Nino that threatens to be worse than the 1997 event is sweltering the globe. Now temperatures worldwide are hitting 1 to 1.2 C above 1880s averages. And now the Indonesia wildfires are growing from an annual nation-spanning disaster, to an epic conflagration that threatens to destabilize an entire region.

The Worst Fire on Record, Again

To say that the Indonesian fires this year have been bad may well be the understatement to end all understatements. As of mid October more than 100,000 individual fires had been reported. By late October, damages to the Indonesian economy were estimated to have reached 30 billion dollars (or more than six times the economic impact of the 1997 wildfires). More than 6,000 schools were closed as an international firefighting effort involving an army of 22,000 firefighters proved inadequate to contain the massive-country spanning blazes.

An entire nation fell choking under black, gray, or toxic yellow skies. 500,000 people were reported sick. But not one person among the affected regions’ 43 million residents could pass a day without feeling the dark fingers of the peat smoke squeezing into their chest and lungs, doing untold future damage.

Thousands of miles away, places like Guam were forced to issue air quality alerts as the massive Indonesian smoke cloud was swept across vast swaths of ocean by storms or other weather systems. Indonesia’s peat fire smoke had now become a toxic export and neighboring nations were not at all happy at the vast, dark clouds spreading out from the burning lands.

Indonesia Wildfires

(Satellite shot of a smoke covered Indonesia on October 26 of 2015. Due to a combination of human forced warming of the globe and a Monster El Nino, Indonesia’s current record spate of wildfires could continue to burn until December. As of now, extremely hazardous air quality has Indonesian officials planning mass evacuations from smoke filled regions to hospitals and even to ships off shore. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

The situation has gotten so bad that Indonesia has now set in place mass evacuation plans for the hardest hit regions. The government has distributed 7,000 air purifiers as part of its ‘shelter in place’ program. But for those who simply cannot manage the stifling airs, authorities are planning for transport into hospitals and, if that doesn’t work, to military, hospital, and converted cruise vessels waiting off shore. Government actions, in this case, speak louder than the official words. What they may as well be saying is that, for an ever-growing number of Indonesian citizens, human-forced climate change and slash and burn agriculture has rendered the land uninhabitable.

A Crime Against Humanity

Sutopo Puro Nugroho, the spokesperson for the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency neatly summed it up by stating: “This is a crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions…” The official then went on to state that now was not the time to point fingers. Now was the time to attempt to save lives.

And he’s right. The time to point fingers was years and years ago, before this disaster began to fully unfold. Back then, in the late 20th Century we had a chance to address the endemic corruption of political and economic systems made to depend on dangerous and amoral industries. But at least now we can acknowledge what should have been said long ago — slash and burn agriculture, in this case, joins with the fossil fuel industry to form what could best be described as a global climate crimes syndicate. One whose dark fruits are now coming into an ugly ripeness over Indonesia.

For this year, there’s no neat end in sight. This year, the rainy season may be delayed until at least December. And until that time the hothouse stoked, slash and burn lit fires will continue to belch their awful fume, continue to stifle Indonesia’s inhabitants, continue to add more greenhouse gasses to an already sweltering atmosphere. That is, until the rains do come. And when they do, it’s just a six month wait for another ridiculous burning season, a 1-6 year wait for another new fire-worsening global temperature record, and a 7-20 year wait for another monster El Nino. In the end, the final wait until all of Indonesia’s peatlands are burned may be as little as 30-100 years. A once lush and forested land turning to ruin before our very eyes.

Links:

Indonesia’s Fires Labeled ‘A Crime Against Humanity

Indonesia Fire Season Puts Chokehold on Record Books

Indonesia Under Fire

Choking Smoke — The Growing Curse of Indonesia’s Wildfires

Top 10 Devastating Wildfires

LANCE MODIS

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to DT Lange

Hat Tip to Greg

“It Feels Like Doomsday” — Massive Lake Baikal Wildfires Threaten Water Supply

From the satellite shot, it appears as though Lake Baikal is burning…

Lake Baikal 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

Lake Baikal Burning shores

(‘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.

Links:

Lake Baikal Burning

Prime Minister Rages Over Lake Baikal Wildfires

Siberia’s Road to Permaburn Hell — The Dry Land Burned Like Grass

Drying Lake Baikal Threatens New Era of Water Wars

LANCE MODIS

Hat Tip to RedSky

 

 

 

 

 

 

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