“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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Massive Wildfires Erupt Near Russia-China Border — Lake Baikal Blazes Ignite

As human fossil fuel emissions force the world to warm, moisture and precipitation levels are changing. Wet areas become wetter.  Dry areas become drier. Spring and Summer temperatures increase. And earlier spring snow-melt causes soils to remain drier for longer periods, increasing incidents of drought while lengthening the wildfire season. These hot, dry conditions also increase the likelihood that, once wildfires are started by lightning strikes or human error, they will become more intense, larger and long-burning (paraphrase of this Union of Concerned Scientists Report).

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An extreme heatwave and drought in East Asia is now sparking extraordinarily large wildfires in the Amur region of Russia just across the border with China. The massive fires are plainly visible in the LANCE-MODIS satellite shot and include at least four contiguous fire zones. The fires each show very large burn scars with fire-fronts ranging from 10 to 40 miles across.

Massive Wildfires Amur Russia

Enter a caption

(Enormous wildfires burning along the Russia-China border on May 10th. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 600 miles. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

A very large smoke plume cast off from these blazes is now visible in the MODIS satellite shot. It stretches away from the massive burn scars and on out into the Sea of Japan nearly 1,000 miles away. By comparison, smoke plume analysis hints that the Amur fires together now seem to dwarf the recent massive blaze that burned 2,400 structures in the Canadian town of Fort McMurray over the past week. Yet another instance of extraordinarily large fires burning in a world forced to warm by human fossil fuel emissions.

Thankfully, the Amur fires aren’t currently raging near any large settlements. So it is less likely that widespread loss of life or property has occurred as a result. International news media had no reports on the blazes (as of Tuesday), so little information is now available other than what can be discerned by NASA satellite map analysis.

In context, these fires ignited along a ridge zone that has featured extremely warm and dry temperatures. Rising off a heatwave that began in Southeast Asia, these warm airs are now expanding northward toward the Arctic and will, over the current week, contribute to an amazingly potent heatwave building over the rapidly thawing regions of our world. Ridge development in this zone has been quite persistent and we can expect continued large fires creeping north toward the Arctic.

Lake Baikal Fires Ignite

(Wildfires — indicated by red spots in the above map — are lighting off around the discontinuous permafrost zone near Lake Baikal. During recent years, this region of Russia has suffered from the kind of extreme drought and warming associated with human-caused climate change. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

This extremely hot and dry zone has also lit off numerous fires in the Lake Baikal region. Representing the furthest southern extent of the Northeast Asian permafrost zone, heat and thaw in the region due to global warming have resulted in increasing fire hazards. As with Northwest Canada, an unholy relationship exists between fires and thawing permafrost. The permafrost as it thaws and dries provides an understory fuel that aids in fire persistence and intensity — sometimes resulting in hotspots that smolder throughout the winter. And the fires can activate more and more of the permafrost layer below — pumping out additional carbon which can worsen the warming trend which ignited the fires in the first place.

For 2016, warm, dry ridge zones have tended to dominate both Western North America and Eastern Asia. And in a world that since the start of 2016 has been nearly 1.5 C above 1880s averages, we have seen a very intense early start to fire season featuring numerous very large fires in these zones. As May progresses into June, risks for even more intense fires increase even as the fire zone advances with the warm airs heading north toward the Arctic.

UPDATE: The Siberian Times is now reporting on large wildfires burning in the Amur region of Russia and near Lake Baikal. The Times relayed social media messages from villagers in the impacted regions stating:

‘Forests are burning!’, ‘Nothing to breathe in Bagdarin village!’, ‘Turka village is on fire!’

Those now familiar with scenes of the Fort McMurray fires will note a striking resemblance in some of the photos coming out from the Times today:

Buryatia Wildfires

(Severe boreal forest wildfire raging near a village in Buryatia, Russia yesterday bears an uncanny resemblance to the Fort McMurray Fire. Image source: The Siberian Times.)

The times notes that 11 structures have burned and more than 50 villagers have been evacuated. In total, more than 2,100 personnel are now involved in firefighting efforts in Amur, near the Trans-Baikal region, and in Buryatia. Russian officials note that some of these fires were ignited when locals burned grass to clear fields for farming. A tradition among Russians, the fire danger is now so intense due to changing conditions brought on by climate change, that officials have outlawed the practice. Resulting wildfires have, over recent years, consumed massive resources. So it’s understandable why Russian authorities are keen to reduce wildfire ignition sources.

That said, it is likely such laws are not enough to prevent the fires — which could also be ignited by lightning from more prevalent storm systems or by smoldering peat bogs which have become more and more involved in permafrost zone fire hazard increases during recent years.

(Article corrected to include an updated geo-location of fires very near the Chinese border, but on the Amur side in Russia.)

Links:

LANCE MODIS

The Copernicus Observatory

As the World Warms, Expect More Wildfires

Warm North Pacific Winds to Usher in Brutal Arctic Heatwave

Wildfires Rage in Siberia and Russian Far East

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat Tip to S.E.

“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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Late June 2014: Arctic in Hot Water as Sea Ice Thins and Tundra Fires Erupt

Atmospheric warming due to human-caused climate change. It’s the general measure we’ve used to track a devastating and ongoing heat amplification due to a terrible greenhouse gas emission. But if we were to look for where the greatest amount of that heat has accumulated, it would be in the world’s oceans. For from its air-contacting surface to its depths thousands of meters below, the World Ocean has captured 93.4% of the total heat forcing humans have already unleashed. The remainder is almost evenly divided between the atmosphere, the continents, and the ice.

We rely on floats and deep-plunging sensors to keep track of total ocean heat content. But on any given day we can see well enough what is happening at the surface. And today ocean surface heat is screaming through the world’s satellite sensors. Overall global anomalies are spiking higher than +1 C above the 1979 to 2000 average. In the Equatorial Pacific, an El Nino that looks to be far stronger than the one that occurred in 2009-2010 is building, heating a massive wedge of the Eastern Equatorial Pacific to +2 to +4 C above average. And in the far north, we see extraordinary high surface water temperature departures exactly where we need them least — bordering Greenland and the remaining Arctic sea ice.

Arctic Sea surface temperature Anomaly on Jun 24

(Arctic sea surface temperature anomaly on June 24, 2014. Image source: NOAA/NWS.)

For encircling the Arctic from the West Coast of Greenland, to Iceland, to Svalbard, to the Barents and Kara Seas, to the Chukchi and on to the Beaufort we see surface water temperatures ranging from 2.25 to 4 C or more above average. And just west of Svalbard, we have water temperatures ranging in a zone exceeding a terrifying 8 C above average. When a sea surface temperature departure of 0.5 to 1 C above average is considered significant, these values represent extremes that are far outside what was once considered normal.

Melt Pressure to Ice Sheets

Such high surface water temperatures have numerous effects. The first is that adjacent submerged ice sheets, such as the calving faces of Greenland’s great glaciers plunging into the ocean, are faced with a far greater melt pressure than before. The glacial fronts in many cases expose 500 or more feet of ice directly to these much warmer waters. And on almost every side of Greenland, but especially in the west, along Baffin Bay, these great ice masses are confronting extraordinary warmth. The heating is without respite. It occurs at all hours of the day and since it is delivered by water, it is many times more energy intensive than a similar volume of equally heated air.

Widespread Sea Ice Thinning and Melt

In the sea ice edge zone, the warmth also provides added heat pressure to the vulnerable and already greatly thinned ice floes. This heating is especially apparent in areas where continental rivers disgorge their waters into the Arctic Ocean. Warmer than normal water temperatures have coincided with much warmer than normal land temperatures, particularly over tundra regions like Canada’s Northwest Territory and the Yakutia region of Russia. These warmer lands result in warmer river flows. And the hot rivers spill into an already hotter than usual Arctic Ocean.

The result, as we can see in today’s MODIS satellite shots are numerous zones of greatly thinned ice.

Beaufort Thin Ice

(Ice melt, thin ice and melt ponds in the Beaufort Sea on June 25 of 2014. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

A Beaufort Sea confronted with warm water outflow from the Mackenzie River, sea surface temperatures in the range of +1 to +4.5 C above average, and a broad swath of above freezing air temperatures, is now starting to show major melt effects. The sea ice has already withdrawn by as much as 150 miles from a broad section of the Canadian and Alaskan coasts. The off-shore ice features numerous very large polynyas and leads. And, overall, the ice has taken on a bluish tint indicative of widespread melt pond formation.

Russian Arctic Ocean sea ice june 25

(Arctic Sea Ice over the Laptev and East Siberian Seas. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Meanwhile on the far side of the Arctic, effects appear to be even more widespread. Though sea surface temperature values are somewhat lower than those seen in the Beaufort, at +0.5 to +1.25 in most open water areas, the entire region is rife with 150-200 mile wide polynyas, shattered and broken floes, and thinning (blue in the satellite picture) ice covered in melt ponds. The ice in this region is so frail that even the mildest storms, featuring 15-20 mph winds, are enough to rip through and splinter previously contiguous ice. And the storms in the region this year have been quite mild, ranging from 990 to 1000 mb in strength.

Sea ice measures show current area and extent at between 3rd and 5th lowest on record. That said, observed ice response to even the mildest high and low pressure weather systems reveals a startling vulnerability with much warmer than normal sea surface temperatures surely a contributing factor.

Wildfire Eruptions From The Northwest Territory to Siberia

In net, much warmer water temperatures and retreating sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere trigger both Jet Stream erosion and increasing south to north air flow. Over the continents, where lands are far more susceptible to rapid warming, this can result in Arctic regions seeing summer time temperatures comparable to those in latitudes much further south.

Over the past week, temperatures in the upper 70s to upper 80s (Fahrenheit) covered a broad region of Canada’s Northwest Territory including Alberta and the Mackenzie Delta region along the Beaufort Sea. These temperatures, in the range of 20-25 F above average rapidly dried out the shallow topsoil zone over the frozen and thawing tundra. Such rapidly dried soil and newly liberated tundra is a volatile fuel for fires. The human-thawed tundra itself contains burnable organic material and hosts pockets of methane while the dry soil bed is suffused with tinder-like grasses and shrubs. Any ignition can set off extraordinary fires of almost unimaginable scope and intensity.

Great Slave Lake Fires NWT

(Massive fires rage near Great Slave Lake in Canada on June 24, 2014. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

By June 24, four massive fires, each with a front ranging from 20-30 miles in breadth, raged along the shores of Great Slave Lake in Northwest Canada. Four smaller, though still significant fires also burned nearby. The fires are plainly visible as white, comet-like plumes of smoke in the satellite picture above. For reference, Great Slave Lake is more than 200 miles across at its widest point. Bottom edge of frame is about 300 miles.

To the south and east by about 250 miles lies the Fort McMurray tar sands operation. A smaller, though still intense, tundra fire raged within 20 kilometers of that sprawling site but did not yet encroach on one of the most powerful and dangerous means of carbon-to-atmosphere delivery on the planet.

On the other side of the Arctic in Siberian, Russia, the situation was, once again, more dire. There a region very vulnerable to mid summer wildfires during recent years erupted into numerous blazes belching smoke into a swirling cloud caught up in the heat dome overhead:

Lake Baikal Fires Re-Ignite

(Massive region of wildfires North of Lake Baikal, Russia. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

These fires were sparked by temperatures that, during recent days, ranged in the 80s and even 90s. An extraordinary heat forcing for rapidly melting tundra regions that also saw far warmer than typical temperatures this past winter.

This area, about 800 miles to the north of Lake Baikal, Russia, is a region of rapidly thawing tundra that has burned again and again during recent summers. For scope, the satellite shot frame, above, is 750 miles on an edge. In the picture are about 50 fires with fronts ranging from 4-35 miles.

This spring, a broad area to the south of the current fire zone and just north of Lake Baikal saw massive fire activity prompting Russia to dispatch an army of hundreds of firefighters to the region. Such intense fire activity so early was unprecedented for Russia. But the real fire season typically peaks from mid July to August. And, in the above picture, we see what is likely the opening salvo for the summer fire season in earnest.

Smoke and soot from these massive fires are swept up in the circumpolar Jet Stream. There they are born aloft for hundreds of miles, often traveling northward to find a final resting place upon the sea ice or atop Greenland’s glaciers. This ultimate darkening of the snow further enhances glacial melt even as it completes the cycle of warmth, finishing a dance of heat that rises up from the oceans, assaults the ice, and heats the once frozen lands to erupt in flame.

 

Links:

Support the Dark Snow Project

Where is Global Warming Going?

NOAA/NWS

LANCE MODIS

When April is the New July: Siberia’s Epic Wildfires Come Far Too Early

Global Warming Pushing Canadian Wildfires to Spike

 

 

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