The Fires of History Yet Rage — Climate Change and the Authoritarian Assault on Liberal Democracy

Some have said that history ended with the fall of Soviet Russia and the subsequent virtuous spread of liberal democracy. Now, with a fossil-fueled dictator at the Kremlin conducting information wars to topple western democracies and with the various and many-fanged monsters of climate change howling at the gates of a world besieged, that notion seems both ignorant and laughable.

Pshaw — history ended? Clearly not.

(The glaciers and snows of the Himalayas are dwindling — just one of the obvious impacts of human-forced climate change. Video source: Google Earth Engine.)

A good segment of the world now acts like their brains have been hacked. Bots and trolls masquerading as real people try to shout down valid out-crys for divestment-from and resistance-to worsening abuses. And Elon Musk has a point when he says we’re all cyborgs now.

But it is, perhaps, possible for us to sympathize with the now-faded false comfort of our brief fantasy that abusive powers were defeated — never to rise again. For, in 1989, the difficulties were seemingly more remote — walled off in perceived blocks of East vs West, segmented by large, set-piece armies and mostly impermeable spheres of influence. With the collapse of one sphere — the side of totalitarianism and the authoritarian state — it seemed that the advance of liberal western democracy and with it justice, freedom, and equality was inevitable.

Now, 28 years later, the trouble and chaos jumps right out at you through the screen of your computer, tablet, or smart phone. Authoritarianism splintered. But then its various shards metastasized, becoming smarter, more nimble, more in your face, and more linked to global monetary and information power centers. Meanwhile, the West, caught up in the illusions of conservative thought, failed to advance and was therefore unprepared when new threats inevitably emerged both from within and without (See how Trump’s actions boosted effectiveness of Russian information warfare against US).

(NASA shows Arctic rate of warming per decade through 2012. Putin hopes for an ice-free Arctic so he can drill for more oil. His assault on western democracy is also related to a climate change denial based attack on renewable energy. Image source: NASA.)

You may today be cajoled — through the internet — by none other than oil billionaire, petrostate dictator, former KGB agent, democracy saboteur, and Trump-supporter Vladimir Putin who’d try to use his supposedly legendary charm (or the merciless intimidation of his online agents and surrogates) to convince you of the false notion that the climate is changing but humans aren’t the cause (see — Putin Defends Climate Deniers and Looks Forward to Arctic Melting). If you’re one of those strong-willed enough to wrench your mind from the grasp of a man and his army of 15,000 information warfare trolls spreading misinformation aimed at the advancement of his destructive wealth and power, you could use the same powerful tool to actually directly contact real scientists — who’d tell you that about 100 percent or more of present warming is now being caused by human beings. So you could then give Putin a very justified big, fat middle finger salute.

And who knew that an honest man (or, in this case, seventeen honest women and men) would be so hard to come by in the age of mass and easy to access factual information? The differences between the false and the true and between the total lack of moral stature of those who will use any means available to grasp for more power (see — Follow the Trail of Dead Russians) and those who are now threatened if they selflessly choose to serve the public good (see — Climate Science Witch Hunts) is as stark as stark could be. Socrates, during his last days, couldn’t hold a candle to the injustices and truth mangling we face today.

(Back in December, a Russian military threat disrupted renewable energy production from wind turbines like these in the Baltic.  Unwilling to transition to renewable energy, Russia, under Putin, has staked its fate to oil and gas production. Historically, state economic reliance on fossil fuels has enabled autocratic dictatorships even as it has tended to produce crashes when market prices drop. The fall of the Soviet Union can be linked to low oil and gas prices, for example. Image source: Power Technology.)

But as moral thought-leaders continue to try to warn the public, and as those who have unjustly and immorally enriched themselves by polluting the atmosphere and wrecking the climate seek to cover up the serious risks and harms, the fossil fuel carbon that has been so irresponsibly dumped into our atmosphere for so long continues to create ever-worsening and more terrible effects.

No. History didn’t end. But the nature of conflict and power certainly changed in a way that rendered old responses obsolete and ineffective. We solved one global problem and by failing to improve ourselves and our societies enough, we invited another. And we are starting to see that we are in far more dire straits than we ever were before as a result.

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An Agenda Harmful to the American People

Farmers in Iowa, Kansas, Texas and California’s Central Valley know that the weather is getting worse. They know that droughts are intensifying, floods are more severe, and wildfires are growing larger as the years steadily warm. Coastal dwellers in Nantucket, Virginia Beach, Cape Hatteras, Myrtle Beach, Miami and the lowlands of Louisiana know that the seas are rising. They know that tidal and storm flooding takes more land and property with each passing year. And those who live in the far north, in places like Barrow, Alaska, know that the glaciers and sea ice are melting.

(Harmful impacts to Americans from climate change are on the rise and the number of Americans concerned about climate change has never been higher. Image source: Gallup.)

Americans, in greater numbers than ever before, believe that climate change is real, that it is a threat to them, and that humans are the cause. The growing consensus on the matter from the U.S. populace does not match the 97 percent or more of climate scientists who are very concerned about the issue, but the 68 percent of Americans who believe that global warming is occurring and is caused by humans cuts a stark contrast with the person who is now the sitting President of the United States.

Obama’s Helpful Response

The world has already warmed by 1.2 degrees Celsius since the 1880s. We see the effects of that warming all around us. All across this country, lives, property and livelihoods are under increasing threat from a climate fundamentally changed by fossil fuel burning. However, the warming we’ve already experienced is the early, easy warming. The warming that lies ahead is of a much more difficult caliber. In other words, a blow is coming at us all. We can’t completely stop it at this point — it’s too late for that, we’ve coddled the fossil-fuel special interests for far too long — but we can soften it.

President Barack Obama tried to help the American people do just that. He established fuel efficiency standards aimed at inspiring innovation among America’s corporations. Such innovation would put them at the forefront of new technology that could help wean our country off oil dependency. By 2025, most vehicles were to have average mileage standards of 54.5 mpg, the implication being that a large portion of U.S. vehicles would be electric by then. At the same time, Obama pushed to shift U.S. power generation away from coal, and more toward wind and solar. These combined efforts would have cut U.S. carbon emissions across the entire economy 26 percent by 2025. They would have generated a leaner, meaner U.S. economy better suited to compete in a world whose constituents increasingly demand clean energy, and better able to face the harms coming down the pipe from human-caused climate change.

Fossil Fuel, Petrostate Interference in Global Democracies

The fossil fuel interests of the world — including both corporations and states suffering from economic dependence on fossil fuel revenues — did not at all like the new policies coming out of the U.S. The United States, as a global leader promoting renewable energy and responses to climate change, was fully capable of spearheading a global energy transition. Under Obama, the beginning of such a transition happened. Solar cell production multiplied, wind farms proliferated, clean energy costs fell, electrical vehicles hit the markets in increasing numbers, and net energy use per person fell, all while economies grew. In part due to exceptional American leadership, the U.S. trend toward cleaner energy repeated itself around the world. Meanwhile, demand for dirty fossil fuels began to lag. People began to talk widely about leaving a large portion of the world’s fossil fuel reserves in the ground, unused. Coal interests experienced mass bankruptcies. And oil and gas markets grew ever more uncertain.

(As government policies supporting renewable energy proliferated, prices dropped and production boomed. In other words, positive policy on the part of the world’s governments produced a renewable energy revolution — much to the ire of fossil-fuel special interests. Image source: Clean Technica.)

Powerful interests associated with fossil fuels, who already held amazing influence over the world’s political bodies, began to fight back. In Europe, this came in the form of right-wing politicians apparently backed by the espionage campaigns of an expansionist and resurgent Russia. Meanwhile, Russian aggression surged into Ukraine and even at times threatened wind production in the Baltic Sea. In the U.S., fossil-fuel-backing Republicans like James Inhofe and Scott Pruitt fought to remove key government policies promoting climate action. But consistent U.S. climate policy managed to hang on.

Now, with the election of Donald Trump — achieved in part through the Russian petrostate’s cyber-warfare campaign against the U.S. electoral system — all the progress achieved by the Obama Administration is in doubt.

A Cadre of Fossil Fuel Backers, Climate Change Deniers, and Ties to Russia 

Trump has placed Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as head of the State Department, fired top career diplomats, and placed political cronies into key roles. Tillerson has failed to recuse himself in the case of interests related to Exxon — a key element of which were Obama-era sanctions that prevented Exxon partnering with Russia in developing oil fields in the Arctic. Trump’s chief national security adviser Michael Flynn — now identified as being employed as a foreign agent for Turkey at the time (it is illegal for a foreign agent to hold a position as part of the U.S. government) — was found to be secretly conferring with Russia (allegedly about the removal of said sanctions) before he himself was forced out of the post.

(Former Bush ethics lawyer weighs in on Michael Flynn failing to register himself as a foreign agent. Video source: CNN.)

Over at the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, a politician who has for many years denied that the world is warming and that humans are the cause, now heads an agency he often sued. Pruitt is well-known for his attacks on government action to reduce the impacts of climate change and for receiving considerable campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry. Almost immediately after coming to head the EPA, Pruitt stocked top offices at the agency with well-known climate change deniers, many of whom were once staffers of Congress’s chief climate change denier — James Inhofe.

Attack on CAFE Standards

As Trump fills key policy-making positions with fossil-fuel industry chiefs, climate change deniers, and people with odd ties to the Russian petrostate, he is moving to kill off Obama’s signature climate actions. This week, Trump appears ready to announce a rollback of Obama’s fuel efficiency standards. Such a move would put a damper on U.S. electric car production just as competitive foreign automakers are jumping into the EV market with both feet. The threatened rollbacks could also cost consumers an extra $2,600 in fuel over a vehicle’s lifetime, harm U.S. energy security, and result in more carbon dumped into the atmosphere. According to the New York Times:

[Obama’s] rules have been widely praised by environmentalists and energy economists for reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and its greenhouse pollution. If put fully into effect, the fuel efficiency standards would have cut oil consumption by about 12 billion barrels and reduced carbon dioxide pollution by about six billion tons over the lifetime of all the cars affected by the regulations (emphasis added).

Though it would take about a year to remove Obama’s policy, and though it is likely that states like California (along with nine other states pushing automakers to increase EV availability) will fight the measure, this change in direction comes at a critical time for the world’s climate, right when harmful impacts from climate change are hitting the American people harder and harder.

Removal of Clean Electricity Goals

Trump’s early moves against U.S. fuel efficiency standards (and by extension energy and climate security) are, unfortunately, just the first subset of a two-pronged effort. Trump is also expected to direct a denier-stacked EPA to dismantle Obama’s clean electrical power regulations — rules aimed at incentivizing wind, solar, and lower carbon forms of fossil fuels while shutting down highly polluting coal power plants. Obama’s actions would have sped renewable energy expansion while cutting U.S. carbon emissions by 26 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2025. But if Trump’s new proposals go through, an extra 2 billion tons of CO2-equivalent gasses could be coming from U.S. smokestacks and tailpipes by that time.

G20 Promotes ‘Market Magic’ as Solution to Climate Change

Trump’s policy moves also appear to be aimed at hollowing out international actions on climate change. A recent draft of the upcoming G-20 Summit, a meeting of finance ministers from the world’s top 20 industrialized nations, backed away from key commitments to combat climate change. The G-20’s preliminary policy statement removed language supporting the Paris Climate treaty (only 47 words address the treaty now as opposed to 163 words in 2016), appears to have reneged on $100 billion worth of commitments from wealthy nations to fund renewable energy and greenhouse gas emissions cuts, and relies on “multilateral development banks to raise private funds to accomplish goals set under the 2015 Paris climate accord.”

John Kirton, director of the University of Toronto’s G-20 Research Group, in an interview with Bloomberg noted that the new policy statement “…basically says governments are irrelevant. It’s complete faith in the magic of the marketplace. That is very different from the existing commitments they have repeatedly made.”

It’s worth noting that Trump’s appointed treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin is the U.S. lead for G-20-related climate policy, so this new direction for the G-20 can’t entirely be separated from Trump or from his former Goldman Sachs employee Treasury Secretary.

Worsening Climate Situation

All these prospective national and global climate policy reversals come as the climate situation continues to worsen and damages from climate change related disasters escalate. We are currently in the process of warming from 1.2 C (present global temperature departure) above 1880s averages to 2 C above average. The amount of damage coming from this next degree of warming will be considerably more than the amount of damage that occurred as we warmed from 0.5 to 1.2 C above average from the 1980s to now.

(According to reinsurer Munich Re, the number of natural disasters has more than doubled since the early 1980s. Growth in the number of natural disasters all come from meteorological events, hydrological events, and climatological events — all which are influenced by warming global temperatures. Image source: Munich Re.)

The U.S. and every other nation in the world is now seeing a clear and present danger coming from climate change as natural disasters ramp up. In other words, the climate change related fire is already burning. And the Trump Administration appears set to throw more fuel on that fire. We can say with complete certainty that these policies represent a political agenda that is harmful to the American people. And we should resist this harmful agenda at every turn.

Rex Tillerson Named as Secretary of State Amidst CIA Report of Russian Attack on U.S. Election

For those saying that this is the first time they’ve heard of Russia’s attack on the US election or of the serious and harmful conflict of interest that occurs when a billionaire demagogue who’s aligned with fossil fuel special interests, couldn’t care less about the integrity of American democracy, and denies human-caused climate change takes office, then I have ‘news’ for you. We were writing about this back in July.

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Some have said that President-Elect Donald Trump’s stated support of Russian hacking and conduct of espionage operations against the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election while subsequently attacking the CIA is ‘on the verge of treason.’ Mind you, these charges come from a member the Tea Party — the musket-toting Joe Walsh — and not from the democrats or journalists who’ve been warning the U.S. electorate about Russian interference apparently aimed at placing Trump as President since the summer. A fact that has come into harsh focus now that a CIA report on Russian espionage has been brought to the attention of the press. A report that would have been discussed publicly prior to the election, and not after, if republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hadn’t voiced doubts or threatened to politicize the matter.

(Former CIA Counter-Terrorism official Phil Mudd expresses outrage at Trump’s attacks on one of the US’s top intelligence agencies.)

This week, notably after an election in which Russia, urged on or enabled by some republican party leaders, dug up emails in what for any rational observer was an obvious effort to smear the political opponents of republicans and in which republicans were largely found technically if not popularly victorious, Mitch McConnell is now singing a different tune. The Senate Leader strongly condemned any foreign breach of U.S. cyber-security and noted that “the Russians are not our friends.”

Bravo Mitch. But one has to ask the entirely pertinent question — where was your sense of patriotic concern three months ago??? 

Former CIA Director Michael Morell was pretty clear in his expert opinion on the matter:

“A foreign government messing around in our elections is, I think, an existential threat to our way of life. To me, and this is to me not an overstatement, this is the political equivalent of 9/11.”

Sadly, this political firestorm likely won’t end with the CIA report or with the Congressional inquiry. Trump will claim the FBI’s non-attribution of intent in Russia’s obvious espionage efforts as cover for his own harmful actions. Actions that first cheered-on Russian espionage and have, over the past week, produced an adversarial relationship between a President-elect and an agency — the CIA — whose chief mission it is to keep Americans safe from the kind foreign aggression we’ve apparently just experienced.

Oil CEO Friend of Russia as U.S. Secretary of State

Meanwhile, on Monday, the man who benefited the most from this CIA-reported Russian interference in the U.S. election — Donald Trump — was busily promoting ‘Friend of Russia’ Rex Tillerson into the office of the Secretary of State. In this case, the phrase — elections have consequences — has just produced a gigantic payoff for all those CIA-identified Russian email hacking and fake news dissemination efforts in the form of the man Russia lauded for helping its petroleum industry open new fossil fuel extraction and burning efforts in the Arctic.

Rex will come to head an agency whose stated goals include the promotion of human rights and the advancement of U.S. policy aimed at mitigating and reducing the harms produced by human-caused climate change. But what Rex has done — for his entire 41 year career at Exxon — is promote the kind of oil extraction efforts in Russia that will saddle the Earth with yet one more gigantic carbon bomb and broker business deals with some of the worst human rights abusers in modern history.

russia-oill-production

(Russian efforts to increase oil and gas production focus on Arctic regions of East and West Siberia. Exxon Mobile under Tillerson was slated to provide Russia with extraction assistance when plans were shut down by U.S. sanctions against Russia following its invasion of the Ukraine. Tillerson opposes sanctions and has, in the past, looked the other way when Russia has acted in an abusive fashion. Image source: EIA.)

For Rex and Exxon, in an admittedly risky courting of a Russian dictator well known for cynically turning against his ‘friends,’ a big deal with Russia promised to produce billions in profits by opening up Arctic oil exploration. Back in 2013, an arrangement was moving along in which Exxon would provide technical expertise for extracting a massive pile of hard to reach oil and gas reserves. Exxon didn’t seem concerned by the fact that Russia had betrayed a similar contract with British Petroleum, thrown one of the competitors to state-run Rosneft in jail, or forced a Total Oil CEO to flee Russia due to ‘sustained harassment.’

In 2014, the high-risk game that Exxon was playing with Russia went sour after Russia invaded the Ukraine. The U.S. under President Obama, decided to apply sanctions against Russia for its military occupation of Ukraine. And in subsequent years, Exxon lost at least 1 billion due to the combined sanctions and Russian military aggression. Russia, meanwhile, saw its Arctic oil extraction efforts slow due to lack of access to western technical expertise. Tillerson, at the time, used his position as Exxon CEO to put pressure on the U.S. to lift sanctions. Such efforts were arguably against the national interest — which focuses on containing and preventing aggression by foreign powers — and aimed at simply fattening Exxon’s and, by extension, Rex’s bottom line. In critiquing an Exxon CEO, we might lable these actions as amoral profit-seeking that runs counter to the national interest. But place Tillerson as Secretary of State and we end up with moral hazard writ large. For Tillerson, if he promotes similar goals while in office, would be wrongfully using a public appointment to pursue a personal monetary interest — in other words opening up the U.S. to corruption and enabling Tillerson to perpetrate graft.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Exxon was facing its own troubles due to its promotion of climate change denial after Exxon scientists warned the company that climate change would produce serious and wide-ranging impacts. Various attorney generals across the U.S. investigated the oil giant for misleading the U.S. public in its numerous climate change related communications and through political activities that supported climate change skeptics and deniers. Meanwhile, Exxon shareholders filed their own suit against the company claiming that the corporation’s stated oil reserves did not take into account planned responses to climate change. Overall, these wide-ranging legal entanglements paint a broad picture in which Exxon is consistently charged with misleading both the public and its shareholders on the critical emerging issue of climate change. And all of this happening while Rex Tillerson, the newly appointed Secretary of State, was at the helm.

In the end, it’s pretty obvious what will result from Tillerson’s appointment as Secretary of State. First, U.S. efforts to mitigate climate change by working with foreign powers will be stymied and/or sabotaged. Trump has stated that he wants to withdraw from the Paris Climate Summit — and who better to lead those efforts than climate change denial promoter Rex Tillerson? But more to the point, U.S. foreign policy under Tillerson is even more likely to roll back sanctions against Russia for its attack against the Ukraine. And not only would this embolden Russia to future aggression while opening up another major source of global carbon emissions, it may also produce personal profits for Rex Tillerson and short term corporate profits for Exxon — if Russia doesn’t screw him and the U.S. over. And after directly attacking the U.S. election to get what it wants in an act of international cyber-warfare aggression the likes of which has never been perpetrated against this country, it appears that Russia has all the worst of intentions at heart.

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

Rapidfire hotspot analysis

(NASA LANCE MODIS Rapid Fire hotspot analysis of extreme fire outbreak in the Amur region of Russia on April 28, 2014. In this shot, the Amur runs west to east through the frame. To the right is the Pacific Ocean [off frame] to the left is a corner of Russia’s massive Lake Baikal. The red spots indicate currently active fires. Image source: LANCE-MODIS)

What we are currently witnessing is something that should never happen — an outbreak of fires with summer intensity during late April at a time when Siberia should still be frigid and frozen.

*    *    *    *    *

Last year, during late July and early August, a series of epic wildfires raged to the north and west of Russia’s far eastern Amur region. About a week later, the skies opened up in a ten-day-long deluge that pushed the Amur River bordering Russia and China to levels not seen in the entire 150 year span of record-keeping for the region. Whole cities were submerged as the Amur leapt its banks to form a kind of massive inland sea.

The floods promoted strong growth in the region, penetrating permafrost zones to enhance melt, providing major fuel sources for fires should they re-emerge. Come winter, a persistent warm ridge pattern in the Jet Stream transported hotter than usual air over this region. The winter was far, far warmer than it should have been. And when spring came, it came like the onset of summer.

Last week, temperatures soared into the 70s and ever since the beginning of April, freakishly large fires for so early in the burn season erupted. By April 23rd, the Russian fire ministry had logged nearly 3,000 fires. The outbreak was so intense that, just a few days ago, more than 5,000 pieces of heavy equipment and an army of firefighters were engaged throughout a large stretch of Russia from the still frozen shores of Lake Baikal to the far eastern Amur region.

But last night’s LANCE-MODIS satellite pass brought with it unexpected new horrors:

Massive Burn Scars

(Two massive wildfires in excess of 200 square miles burning in the Amur region of Russia on April 28, 2014. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Two massive burn scars devouring huge sections of land in the Amur region of Russia.

For scale, the ribbon of blue traveling north to south beneath the first massive fire is a mile-wide tributary to the Amur river called the Zeya. Using the scale provided by LANCE MODIS, we see that the fire at upper left is currently about 15 x 18 miles (270 square miles) in area and that the fire at lower right is about 23 x 20 miles (460 square miles) in area.

Even during Russia’s recent global warming-spurred epic fire seasons of 2010 to 2013 fires of this scope and obvious visible intensity didn’t come up in the satellite imagery until the most intense periods of summer heating during late June through early August. Today, we have monster fires comparable to those which burned during Russia’s worst ever recorded fire seasons, at their height, burning next to snow covered regions in late April.

As a last reference, look at the ice covered river in the far lower right corner of the above image. That swatch of crystalline white — yes, it’s a large estuary apparently being dwarfed by the massive fire burning just above it. Beneath wide body of still frozen water is what appears to be a ‘small’ plume of smoke. It’s worth noting that this smoke plume issues from a recently burned region covering fully 15 square miles. By comparison, the fires above each cover areas comparable to Guam, half of Rhode Island, or the massive ice island recently broken off from the now doomed Pine Island Glacier (PIG) — B31.

Unfortunately, these massive fires aren’t the only blazes covering extraordinary swaths of Russian land during late April. Moving west to the shores of the still partly frozen Lake Baikal, we find numerous fires burning beneath a sea of smoke in the lowlands between two, still snow-capped highlands.

Lake Baikal Fires April 28

(Sea of Smoke and Fire north and west of Lake Baikal on April 28, 2014. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

The entire roughly 200 x 200 mile (40,000 square mile) region is covered by the steely gray smoke of previous and ongoing blazes.  Peering down through the dense shroud, we see numerous thick smoke plumes issuing from still out of control fires. The freakish prematurity of these blazes is readily apparent in the visible ice still covering much of Lake Baikal and also in the snow still doggedly clinging to the nearby mountainous highlands.

A vicious combination of thawing permafrost, a rapid increase in average temperatures throughout Siberia and driven by human warming, and the vulnerability of the active soil layer and related vegetation to rapid drying appears to be turning this region into an ever more explosive fire trap. Risk of wildfire is dependent on both heat and fuel. But with the permafrost containing an almost inexhaustible layer of either drying peat or venting methane and with temperatures now rising at twice the already rapid global rate, the potential for burning in or near the violatile permafrost thaw zone may well be practically unlimited.

These extraordinary and anomalous conditions, combined with a very intense early season warming, what appears to be a persistent and developing heat dome over Eastern Russia and adjacent Arctic Siberia, a very rapidly receding snow line, and, potentially, an amplifying effect from an emerging El Nino in the Pacific, results in a very high continued risk for both extreme and record fires throughout the spring and summer of 2014.

Links:

LANCE-MODIS

Russia Experiences Great Burning

A Song of Flood and Fire

A Dangerous Dance of Frost and Flame

100 Fires Burn 12,000 Hectares in Russia

Doomed Pine Island Glacier Guam-Sized Iceberg into Southern Ocean

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

World Food Security Slides into Red Zone as FAO Index Jumps to 213, Russian Special Forces Continue to Destabilize Breadbasket Ukraine, and Climate-Change Induced Extreme Weather Ravages Croplands

Feeling impacts from a broad range of stresses including widespread heat and drought from the US West, to South America, to Australia and Southeast Asia, the ongoing Russian invasion and destabilization of breadbasket Ukraine, and the growing threat of a strong El Nino emerging in the Pacific, world food prices made another significant jump during March of 2014.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global food index prices surged from a value of 208 in February to 212.8 in March. The 4.8 point increase from February to March followed on the heels of a 5.5 point increase between January and February.

Values above 210 are considered to result in enough stress to ignite conflict as an increasing number of regions begin to see scarcity from lack of ability to purchase or produce food. For the time being, these prices remain below the 2011 high water mark of 229 which was linked to a broad eruption of conflict and food riots from Libya to Egypt to Syria and throughout a smattering of other impoverished or vulnerable regions in Asia and around the globe.

But with the world climate situation worsening, with chances for a strong El Nino emerging later this year increasing, and with global conflict over dwindling and endangered stores of food-related wealth and resources intensifying, there remains a substantial risk that global food prices will continue to see strong upward pressure throughout 2014, pushing and maintaining levels high enough to continue to ignite instability, unrest and, in some cases, open warfare.

(The first episode of Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously” provides a close look at two regions suffering directly from crop losses, economic impacts and hunger due to extreme droughts related to climate change — Syria and the US Southwest. It provides a view, in close-up of what happens due to years-long droughts and related food and resource shortages. In the US, loss of grazing land resulted in the closing of meat packing plants supporting local workers and in severe stress to communities even as religion and political beliefs impeded an effective response to the rising crisis. In Syria, a ten year drought spurred armed revolution against a government that turned a blind eye to the needs of its suffering citizens.)

Global Hot Spots

Western US: March saw a brief weakening of the, now 13 month long, blocking high pressure system off the US west coast. This slight interlude unleashed an extraordinary surge of Pacific Ocean moisture that set off record floods and one-day rainfall events throughout Northern California, Washington and Oregon. Pulses of moisture did briefly touch the US Southwest, but the Jet Stream configuration had shifted somewhat northward, resulting in less water relief for the most drought stressed zones.

April-8-2014-US-Drought-Monitor-Map

(The April 8 US Drought Monitor shows drought continuing to intensify over the US despite some moisture reaching affected areas.)

As a result, the epic California drought is probably still the worst seen in 500 years and is now likely to intensify and/or persist on into late this fall. By April 1, snow cover had fallen to 25% of a typical average for the Sierra Nevada. Combined drought and water shortages have led to an unprecedented complete cut off of federal water supplies to many local farmers. In addition, Silicon Valley, has been forced to ration its drinking water supply.

Meanwhile, sections of Texas have experienced their driest 42 month period since record-keeping began in 1911. Regions near Lubbock received only 33 inches of rainfall in the three and a half year period since October of 2010. A normal rainfall for this zone would be around 64 inches for the same time-frame. This makes the current 4+ year Texas drought worse than any previous dry time during the 20th Century, including the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s.

With the emergence of spring, a typical post-winter dry period will likely be enhanced by a continued formation of a powerful dome high pressure system blocking moisture flow to California and the US Southwest. In addition, amplified heat in the up-slope of a high amplitude Jet Stream wave will likely drive drought conditions to rapidly worsen as spring runs into summer. Sadly, the primary hope for moisture comes from the emergence of El Nino, which is becoming more and more likely for later this year. However, if the El Nino comes on as strong as expected, rainfall events are likely to be extraordinarily intense, ripping away top soil from the likely fire-damaged zones and making it difficult for water planners to capture and store water due to its velocity. In the worst case, Ark Storm-like conditions could emerge due to a massive heat and moisture dump that could result in very intense rivers of moisture forming over western regions.

Brazil: Ever since 2005, Brazil has been suffering from a series of persistent drought episodes. By this year, the nine year long drought series reached an ominous peak. Like California, this drought series is now likely the worst seen in decades and possibly as far back as 500 years. The result was widespread fires and blackouts throughout Brazil together with extreme impacts to farm production. Particularly hard hit were coffee and sugar production, sending prices for both markets rocketing to record or near-record levels.

Brazil Drought Rainfall Anomalies

(South American rainfall anomalies from Jan 23 to February 24, 2014. Image source: CPC Unified.)

Indonesia and Southeast Asia: From Thailand to Malaysia to Indonesia, drought resulted in significant reductions in palm oil production, a main crop for the region. Throughout March and into April large fires were reported over a wide drought-stricken zone even as smoke choked both cities and countryside. Some of the fires were suspected to have been illegally set by large palm oil conglomerates seeking to clear new land for an ever-expanding set of palm oil plantations. But the plantations may now be in danger of a drought fed by both their destructive practices of land-clearing and by their overall contribution to an extraordinary and excessive global greenhouse gas overburden.

Fires Malacca Strait 2014

(MODIS shot of widespread fires near the Malacca Strait during March of 2014. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Drought related heat and fires not only threatened crops but also resulted in multiple school closings, numerous dangerous air warnings, thousands of calls reporting peat fires and, in Indonesia alone, more than 20,000 people hospitalized for respiratory problems.

The Ukraine and Russia: An ever-more expansionist Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine also resulted in higher food prices as speculators purchased grain stores over projections that Russian forces could disrupt Urkaine’s food production and exports. First phase invasion into the Crimea did not block key grain ports. But tens of thousands of troops massed along the Ukraine border and likely continued incursions by Russian special forces units into Eastern Ukraine resulted in an ongoing destabilization of one of the world’s key grain producers.

In this context, it is worth noting that global harvest figures showed Russian wheat production falling from 61 million metric tons per year in 2009 to 38 million metric ton per year in 2012. Throughout this four-year period, Russia has been forced to curtail or cut off grain exports on numerous occasions as increasing periods of drought, fire and extreme weather resulted in loss of crops.

Meanwhile, wildfire season began early in Siberian Russia perhaps presaging a fire season that, when combined with the effects of an emerging El Nino, could be the worst seen since 2010 when Russia first cut off grain exports to the rest of the world.

Global Problem: Though the above list provides examples of where global food supply is most threatened by extreme weather related to climate change and/or a related set of conflicts over resources, it is important to note that the current food, resource, and climate crisis is now global in nature. Droughts and severe weather have left almost no region untouched and now result in substantial damage to crops at least once a year in even the most tranquil locations. Instances of ongoing and systemic drought are now common throughout various areas not mentioned above including: Australia, China, South America, Central America, The Middle East, Africa, India, and sections of Russia and Europe. So though blows to important “bread baskets” provide the most impact to overall food price and availability, a general state of agricultural disruption due to increasingly extreme climates blanketing the globe result in a far more challenging than usual base-line for food producers and consumers everywhere.

Links:

FAO: World Food Situation

US Drought Monitor

LANCE-MODIS

CPC Unified

El Nino Update: Monster Kelvin Wave Continues to Emerge in the Pacific

Monster El Nino Emerging From the Depths

Thirsty West: Where’s the Snow?

Persistent Drought Still Reigns in Much of Texas

Arkstorm: California’s Other Big One

 

Hat-tip to Colorado Bob

Hat-tip to Miep

The Monsters of Growth Shock Rise: Conflict in the Ukraine, Global Food Crisis, and Spending 500 Billion Dollars to Permanently Wreck the World’s Climate

nasa_p1089035

(Immense Russian wildfires burning through the thawing tundra’s carbon pool during summer of 2012. The bar on the lower left denotes 50 kilometers. From end to end, the burning zone seen is about 500 miles in length. Image credit: NASA. Image source: Smoke From Massive Siberian Fires Seen in Canada.)

The radio and television today blares with the news but never the causes:

US meat, coffee, almond and milk prices to sky-rocket. Ukraine invaded by the Russian petro-state. Exxon Mobile to partner with Russian Rosneft and invest 500 billion dollars in extracting oil and gas from the increasingly ice-free Arctic.

What has caused all this? In a term — Growth Shock.

What is Growth Shock?

It’s what happens when any system grows outside of the boundaries of its sustainable limits. In the current, human case, its primary elements are overpopulation, renewable and nonrenewable resource depletion, climate change, poisoning the biosphere and wasting livable habitats, and a vicious system of inequality in which an amoral elite loots and pillages the lion’s share of planetary resources while driving increasing numbers of persons into poverty, hunger, and vulnerability to environmental/ecological collapse.

In the more immediate sense, human burning of fossil fuels is now intensifying droughts and extreme weather around the world. This is negatively impacting agricultural production. In addition, military aggression on the part of Russia has destabilized one of the world’s largest food producers — Ukraine. But these causes and effects are all a part of the larger structure of an ongoing Growth Shock crisis. The most recent and more intense iteration of a series of events that began in the 1970s and continues today.

In my own writing, I have described the forces of Growth Shock as four monsters (overpopulation, resource depletion, climate change, institutionalized human greed) and, like the Diakiaju of Pacific Rim, they continue to grow stronger and to devour increasingly large chunks of our world.

In the context of our intensifying Growth Shock, conflicts can rapidly escalate as resources grow scarce and various nations, powerful individuals and corporate entities jockey for dominance in the context of increasing limitation and peril. But it is important to note that unless the underlying condition that caused the crisis — what is now likely the most terrible manifestation of Growth Shock ever witnessed by humans — is addressed, then there are no winners. No dominators that survive to flourish in the end. No remnant that sees a prosperous future. Only an ongoing string of worsening conflicts, disasters and temporary victories leading to a terrible and bitter ultimate defeat.

*    *    *    *    *

The Special Interests of a Corporate Petro-State, its Dictator and its Oligarchs

So many of you are probably wondering why Russia suddenly invaded Ukraine? Why the West is taking an increasing stake in this country that, until recently, rarely showed on the international stage?

The reasons currently given by US officials certainly appear noble. We should not allow one country to simply invade, bully and rig the electoral process for another. We should not allow a single nation to flaunt international law and behave in a manner that better fits an age of anarchy and brutality. We should not permit these things from the member of the international community with broad responsibilities and obligations that is Russia.

These are moral and, indeed, appropriate frames for the current conflict. As they are appropriate rhetorical responses to international bullying. But we would also be wise not to ignore the underlying drivers — food crisis and overwhelming political power of fossil fuel special interests.

If anything Russia is now little more than a dictatorial, nuclear-armed petro-state, run by corporate oligarchs and a brutish strong man in the form of Vladimir Putin. A man who has ruled this country for a period now going on two decades through a combination of bullying, trickery, and poll fixing. The kind of character many conservatives these days seem to appreciate…

At 2.2 trillion dollars in GDP each year, its economy is comparable to that of the UK — sizable, but not an equal to economic powerhouses US, China, Germany or Japan. But what the Russian petro-state lacks in economic girth, it more than compensates for in two very destructive and destabilizing items — nuclear weapons and fossil fuels. It also retains a rather sizable and effective military — one whose forces are capable of projecting power and toppling governments throughout both Europe and Asia. One that retains its ability to rain nuclear Armageddon on any nation of peoples around the globe.

And this set of powers is increasingly being used to advance the special interests of the corporate, dictatorial state that is today’s Russia.

But it is Russia’s vast oil and natural gas wealth, the single-minded and narrow interests of its rulers, and the dark impetus that is global climate change that have likely combined to spur Russian’s current aggression.

Food, Fossil Fuels and the Compost Bomb

Burning Rings of Fire

(The tundra compost bomb explodes into burning rings of fire that illuminate the Russian night during 2012. The fire rings seen here are each between 10 and 100 kilometers across. Image credit: NASA. Image source: Burning Rings of Fire.)

For the very natural gas, oil and coal that Russia uses as a mainstay for its economy are now in the process of wrecking its future prospects and propelling it to ever more desperate and violent action.

To understand why, one simply has to think a little bit about permafrost and frozen ground.

A majority of Russia’s land mass sits on a pile of permafrost ranging from 1 to more than 10 meters in depth. In the past, this frozen substrata underlay many of Russia’s fields, cities and towns, forming a kind of frozen bedrock. But over the past few decades, the permafrost began to rapidly thaw under the radical and violent force that is human-caused warming. At first, this event was thought to weigh in Russia’s favor. The newly thawed permafrost would become more productive farmland, many assumed, and the added warmth would extend Russia’s growing season.

But few apparently accounted for the speed and violence of human-caused climate change. What happened instead was literally a firestorm. For the thawing peat retained a combustibility roughly equivalent to brown coal. Even worse, it contained pockets of highly flammable liquified organic carbon and methane. Over top this volatile layer were the great boreal forests and the vast grasslands of the Russian land mass. During the periods of summer drought that emerged as human caused climate change amplified at the end of the 2000s, these forests and grasses were, increasingly, simply piles of kindling growing atop a meters thick layer of volatile fuel.

By 2010, climate change brought on a series of record droughts and heatwaves extending far into the Arctic that set both permafrost thaw and lower latitude regions ablaze. As a result, Russia suffered agricultural losses unlike anything seen in its past. Fields and towns burned. The productive regions burned. Russia was forced to close its agricultural market for exports. World food prices hit all time record highs and the food riots that followed were enough to topple regimes and alight civil wars throughout the world’s most vulnerable states.

Through the summers of 2013, Russia suffered amazing fires in its thawing tundra lands. These blazes were, at times, intense enough to require the calling up of its military and the mobilization of up to 200,000 people simply to fight the fires. Heat and moisture from the thawing tundra spilled out into the Jet Stream and amplified the storm track. By 2013, record drying and burning in the tundra lands turned to record floods in the Amur region of both China and Russia. A tragic song of flood and fire.

Song of Flood and Fire

(Massive wildfires burn over Yakutia as an immense rainstorm begins to form over the Amur region of Russia and China. The fires and deluge would together ruin millions of acres of crops during 2014. Image credit: Lance-Modis. Image source: A Song of Flood and Fire.)

It was a string of climate change induced disasters that produced blow after telling blow to Russian agricultural production.

Meanwhile, around the world, similar droughts, floods and severe wind storms were ripping through the world’s croplands. By early 2014, the world food price index was again on the rise. By February, the index had climbed to 208, a very high level that would put those countries and populations at the margins at risk of increasing poverty and hunger all while potentially destabilizing any number of nations.

Ukraine — The Breadbasket of Europe

Perhaps the irony is lost on Russia that the very fuels — oil, gas and coal — that it views as an economic strength are also the source of its increasingly marginal food security and the ongoing and growing devastation of its lands. But Russia, its strongman, and its corporate oligarchs likely haven’t overlooked the fact that Ukraine is one of the world’s largest food producers. In a world where food is becoming increasingly costly and scarce, this particular commodity may well be more important than even oil, gas, or coal.

Ukraine possesses 30% of the world’s remaining richest black soil. It regularly ranks within the top ten producers of both wheat and corn. It is the world’s top producer of sunflower oil. The reach of its agricultural exports extends to the UK, Europe, Japan, China and into Russia itself. If Russia has a food crisis, it will be to the Ukraine that it turns to first. Moreover, the current Russian dictator must see an imperative not to rely overmuch on the US or its other economic rivals for food.

So it is in this context — a one in which climate change is causing Russia to flood and burn, in which climate change is now beginning to take down global agricultural productivity, and in which the Ukraine could well be seen as the Iraq of world food production (one of the only countries with the ability to radically increase production) — that we must also view both the Ukrainian revolution for independence and the Russian armed invasion as a response.

Russia Already Taking Hold of Some of Ukraine’s Most Productive Farmland

Centuries ago, during the dark ages, bad winters drove waves of tribes out of the frigid northern lands and into the then fertile fields of Rome and Europe. History, it seems, is not without its rhymes. For now, a fiery human-driven thaw and climate change appears to be having a similar impact on the Russia and Ukraine of today.

For the lands already under Russian occupation and threat of invasion (Eastern Ukraine primarily) are also some of Ukraine’s most productive wheat and corn growing zones. These lands under threat of additional Russian incursion, if added to the already occupied and planned to be annexed Crimea would compose the bulk of Ukraine’s agriculture.

Russia’s invasion, thus, must be seen as a direct looting of Ukraine’s lands and productive capacity for Russian and, by extension, Putin’s self interest. A set of interests likely inflamed by Russia’s own declining state of food security.

Climate Change and Why This Fight Must Be Against Fossil Energy, Not for It

Unfortunately, this conflict, like so many others, falls under the ominous shadow of the global fossil fuel trade. A shadow that grows ever darker as the crises imposed by human-caused climate change become more and more dire.

In the context of what could cynically be termed American interests, the fossil fuel giant Exxon recently partnered with Rosneft, an oil corporation Putin and his oligarchs essentially looted from a political rival, to invest 500 billion dollars in drilling and exploration in the Russian Arctic. The zones included in the deal involve the highly unstable clathrate and natural gas stores of the Arctic Ocean. And considering the massive sum invested, one cannot overlook the likelihood that the ESAS’s store of up to 1400 gigatons of natural gas clathrate have now been targeted by global fossil fuel interests for burning. Such an exploitation would result in the near tripling of the current human atmospheric carbon loading — all by itself and without the added inputs from coal, tar sands, or other oil and gas reserves. In other words — corporate insanity in the mad pursuit of profits for a few supremely wealthy and powerful individuals. In this case, a breed of greed-driven insanity that falls under the specter of an increasingly violent and expansionist Russia. One driven to hunger for resources by the land and crops destroying influences of the fossil fuels it continues to seek to exploit.

Here is Growth Shock in its most brazen form when wealthy oligarchs, dictators and corporations collude to profit while ruining the productivity of the lands upon which even they rely. And it is this terrible state that cannot be allowed to continue.

The US, therefore, could strike a blow against both Russian aggression and climate change game over by sanctioning Russian-backed Rosneft, disallowing any American corporation from conducting business with them or any other Russian petroleum entity and going further to say that they will sanction any other global corporation with ties to Rosneft. Use of the power of the dollar and of the global monetary system, in this way, could strike a blow against both the greed that underlies the current Growth Shock crisis and against the maniacal continued and expanding exploitation of extraordinarily destructive fuels.

If the US wishes to continue to bring Russia to heel, it will also use the carrot of access to US grain and food shipments as well as providing partnership arrangements with US alternative energy and sustainability-based corporations in exchange for a peaceful withdrawal from the Ukraine. To help Russia save face, it could provide these offers in a less public fashion or in a way that is not personally insulting to Putin.

Little to No Time Left, But the Crisis Presents a Fleeting Opportunity

In broader context, the deteriorating global food situation, the deteriorating global climate situation and the maniacal quest by fossil fuel companies to access and burn an ever-growing volume of oil, coal and natural gas has reached a critical stage that simply cannot continue for much longer without entirely ruining the prospects for human civilization and, likely, much of life on Earth. The Russia and Ukraine conflict is an opportunity to begin a full attempt to change course and to bring the, now very large and growing, forces of our Growth Shock crisis to bay. If we do not, the window of opportunity may well be closed and we may well have consigned ourselves to ever-worsening conflict under a situation of ongoing resource destruction, destruction of modern civilization’s food base, a situation where the powerful are ever more enabled to take from the weak, and a situation in which a hothouse extinction eventually snuffs out most or all of those that survive the ensuing collapse.

Links:

Growth Shock

Smoke From Massive Siberian Fires Seen in Canada

Burning Rings of Fire

Climate and Frozen Ground

Lance-Modis

A Song of Flood and Fire.

World Food Security in the Cross-hairs of Human-caused Climate Change

Climate Change Pushes FAO Food Price Index to 208 in February

The Economy of the Ukraine

Rosneft Warns West over Crimean Sanctions Woos Japan

Rosneft

Putin — the New Global Shah of Oil

A Song of Flood and Fire: One Million Square Kilometers of Burning Siberia Doused by Immense Deluge

About a week and a half ago, I reported on a great burning event in which a massive region of Russian Siberia erupted in hundreds of wildfires blanketing it in a sea of smoke clearly visible in the NASA Aqua Satellite record. Today, reports from Interfax/Radio Russia describe an immense flood emergency in which over 1 million square kilometers of Russia’s Yakutia region have been submerged by a catastrophic rain event.

From the Interfax report:

“It is a unique situation in the sense that it has spread over more than 2,000 kilometers if one looks from west to east, while its depth or width is more than 500 kilometers,” Vladimir Stepanov, head of the National Crisis Management Center of the Emergency Ministry, told a news conference in Moscow.

According to the report, hundreds of villages in this, thankfully, sparsely populated region have been inundated by water putting hundreds of thousands of people in amongst a swirling flood. According to reports from Russian government, the region is now the site of a massive and major rescue operation. As of August 11, the operation composed an army of 20,000 personnel — a force that is likely to have greatly swelled as this major climate disaster expanded through today.

Floods turn Amur Region of Russia into a Sea on August 14.

Floods turn Amur Region of Russia into a Sea on August 14.

(Image source: Radio Free Europe)

A Song of Flood and Fire

As of late July, heavy rainfall had emerged in a dense band along eastern Russia and bordering north China. This band of dense and heavy moisture rose north over an ocean heat dome that was setting off very dangerous high temperatures over the region of Southeast China even as it was baking a large region of ocean, heating a vast expanse of the surface waters to above 30 degrees Celsius. The added moisture and heat content provided fuel for low pressure systems skirting the high.

By early August, major flooding had begun to occur in this eastern region as very heavy storms sprang up over this large area.

We can see the development of this massive storm system starting on August 4th in the image below:

Russia August 4 -- Heavy Rains to the East, Massive Fires to the West

Russia August 4 — Heavy Rains to the East, Massive Fires to the West

(Image source: NASA/Lance-Modis)

In the above image, we are looking down on the Earth from a shot taken above the North Pole. The region we are looking at is Siberian Russia and Yakutia which dominates the central section of the image. Toward the lower left are the Laptev and East Siberian sections of the Arctic Ocean. Toward the central and upper left is Eastern Russia (Kamchatka), Mongolia, and extreme north China. In the upper right corner is central Asia.

Note the very dense region of clouds and rain pulsing up from the Pacific Ocean and overlaying Kamchatka and southern Yakutia. The storm at this point is vast and its cloud coverage immense. But it is just getting started.

Russia August 7 -- Low Pressure Emerges From Central Asia

Russia August 7 — Low Pressure Emerges From Central Asia

(Image source: NASA/Lance-Modis)

By August 7, the storms had sagged toward the south, drifting slowly eastward along the monsoonal flow. Occasional pulses of moisture rose northward from the Pacific to refresh and intensify this storm and cloud flux. This action brought the Pacific and monsoonal storms in direct contact with a hungry low pressure system rising up out of Central Asia and moving from the southwest toward the northeast. By August 7 we can begin to see this storm system entraining the massive volume of moisture associated with the Pacific storm pulse and monsoonal flows.

The storm was emerging over a region of Yakutia that had experienced a massive and terrifying explosion of very energetic wildfires. The air was heavily laden with particles of dense smoke from a great burning that had intensified since late July. There the moisture erupted into a powerful deluge that by August 11th had broken flood records set as far back as 1896. By that time, more than 20,000 personnel had been mobilized to help deal with the floods as hundreds of homes and scores of roadways were inundated.

Russia August 11 -- Deluge Fully Formed Over Yakutia

Russia August 11 — Deluge Fully Formed Over Yakutia

(Image source: NASA/Lance-Modis)

As of August 11, we see a massive and fully formed storm complex directly over Yakutia. The storm has now fully entrained the dense smoke cover belched out by the hundreds of fires, some of which were still burning throughout the region. It was also still drawing in moisture from the Pacific storms and monsoonal flow over south Russia, Mongolia and northern China. A second arm of the storm stretched northward linking the storm with the Arctic. With a strong south and north linkage, the storm had accessed energy to maintain strength and intensity for an extended period.

The large storm system continued to churn through Yakutia and by today, August 14th, a massive region covering 1 million square kilometers was inundated by floodwater. What we see in the satellite shot for today are not one, not two, not three, but four rivers of moisture linking the major storm system that has inundated Yakutia.

Russia August 14 -- Rivers of Moisture Collide

Russia August 14 — Rivers of Moisture Collide

(Image source: NASA/Lance-Modis)

The first river of moisture is a continuation of the Pacific flow rising up along the southeast Russian coast, the second is the monsoonal flow moving from west to east to combine with this Pacific flow. A third flow feeds into the storm from Europe as it rides along parallel and to the north of the more southerly monsoonal flow. A final river of moisture rides up the from the storm, linking it to the Arctic and likely sharing energy and instability with that cold and dynamic region.

With a second low developing to the west of the first and moving along in its shadow and with moisture continuing to feed into these storm systems from the monsoonal flow to the south, it appears that rainy conditions will persist for the already inundated Yakutia region over the next few days at least. And if this pattern continues as predicted, it may well come to rival the great Pakistani floods of 2010.

Fires Still Burn Near the Flooded Lands

One, rather odd, feature of this major flood and fire event is that large areas of wildfires are shown to still be burning throughout Russia. Though the onrushing deluge clearly put out some of the major fires burning in north and central Yakutia, still other major fire complexes continue to burn — some of which remain very near to flooded regions.

In the below MODIS shot a major fire complex is still visible in a region of Russia to the west and south of areas most heavily affected by flooding:

Fires Burn in One Part of Russia as Another Part Floods.

Fires Burn in One Part of Russia as Another Part Floods.

(Image source: NASA/Lance-Modis)

These fires are burning directly in the shadow of the second storm system with their smoke trails feeding into the storm along its southerly inflow.

Conditions in Context

Earlier this year, drought and heatwaves blanketed Siberia and Yakutia. But late July, this region had begun to erupt in a series of extraordinary wildfires that blanketed almost all of northern and eastern Russia in very dense smoke. By early August what is perhaps the worst rainstorm in the history of this area of Russia had begun to form. As of the writing of this article, on August 14, major storms and flooding continued with no immediate end in sight.

Major heatwaves and droughts in extreme northerly regions of Siberia are an anomalous event linked to human caused climate change. Rapid sea ice and snow cover retreat combine with temperatures that are warming at a rate of .5 degrees C each decade over this region to increase the likelihood of such extreme events. Methane and organic carbon stores in the thawing tundra steadily release under this heat forcing and likely provide an amplifying feedback to summer heating events by locally providing more greenhouse gas emission and also providing another fuel store that is available to wildfires. In some of these wildfires, there are reports coming in that fires burn as far as 3 feet into the ground, taking out root systems and stumps along with the trees that burn above ground. Reports of burning ground have also been trickling in (Hat tip to Colorado Bob)

Such burn events are anomalous enough. But for a flood that covers a 1 million square kilometer area to immediately follow in the wake of such amazingly large and widespread fires is anything but normal. Atmospheric patterns that link major weather systems and increase their intensity can be attributed to the formation of powerful heat dome high pressure systems along with weakened and meandering Jet Stream waves. Rising atmospheric heat caused by human warming adds to the density and strength of heat domes (identified as becoming more intense by meteorologist Stu Ostro). Meanwhile erosion of the Jet Stream caused by reduced snow and sea ice cover (identified by Dr. Jennifer Francis) is implicated in a host of problems including more intense and persistent droughts and storm events along with the increased likelihood that weather systems will link up as north to south weather patterns deepen, back up, slow down, and elongate.

A massive ocean heat dome to the south over the Pacific adjacent to China and sea ice and snow cover remaining near record lows must be taken into account when looking at features that likely contributed to the extreme swings from drought, heatwave and fire to massive deluge and flood in Russia.

One last point to consider as a likely contributor is the fact that for each degree (Celsius) of human-caused temperature change, the hydrological cycle amplifies by about 8 percent. This means that rates of evaporation and rainfall are now about 6 percent more intense than they would be in the world of the 1880s. When combined with powerful new weather features like a mangled Jet Stream and immense heat dome high pressure systems, an amped up hydrological cycle further inflates an already extreme environmental condition.

UPDATE: LARGEST FLOOD IN RUSSIAN HISTORY

Reports from the Russian government indicate the region hardest hit stretches from lake Baikal to the Pacific Ocean with some towns in far eastern Russia along the Amur River under as much as 20 feet (6 meters) of water. Reports as recent as yesterday indicated that a total of 113 towns were experiencing major flooding and that an additional 100,000 residents may need to be evacuated.

As of today monsoonal flows and a large moisture pulse rising off of the Pacific Ocean along the back side of a powerful heat dome high pressure system continue to dump copious rains over the region.

Russian officials have stated that this event represents the largest flood in Russia’s history.

I’ve provided a MODIS shot of the hardest hit area under dense cloud cover on August 17:

Flooding Lake Baikal to Pacific Ocean

Russia and China Flooding: Lake Baikal to Pacific Ocean

(Image source: NASA/MODIS)

Lake Baikal is on the left border of the image, the Pacific Ocean on the far right.

Links and Credits:

Interfax

RIA Novosti

NASA/Lance-Modis

Hat Tip to Commenter Steve

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Russia Experiences Great Burning

Ocean Heat Dome Bakes China

How Global Warming Amps Up the Hydrological Cycle and Wrecks the Jet Stream to Cause Dangerous Weather

Russia Experiences Great Burning: Satellite Shots Show ‘Sea of Smoke and Fire’ Blanketing Russia

I don’t know what’s more troubling — the vast size and extent of smoke and wildfires blanketing Siberia and Russia, or the almost complete silence from Russia and the mainstream media on what appears to be a massive, ongoing climate disaster (Note: NASA did provide an excellent press release via the Earth Observatory link here and below).

In 2010, Russia experienced a deadly heatwave that set off terrible wildfires that belched smoke over many of its more populous cities. These fires spread over a region closer to Europe and so they had great impacts on both property and lives. In 2012, Russia experienced a second spate of massive fires, but these raged over more remote sections of Siberia. At first, Russia was slow to respond. Then, it mobilized an army of firefighters — thousands and thousands — to fight scores of blazes raging across its large, remote Arctic regions. The smoke cloud from these fires was so large it eventually covered a section of the Northern Hemisphere from Siberia to the west coast of North America. Valleys in British Columbia filled with the stench of burning from fires thousands of miles away spurring phone calls from concerned Canadian locals to fire departments there.

Then comes 2013. From spring to summer, central Siberia sweltered under a near constant drought and intermittent heatwaves as a very high amplitude ridge in the Jet Stream enabled a powerful heat dome to form during June and then re-form during late July and early August. The late July heat surge appeared to be the final insult setting off an enormous rash of fires throughout central Siberia and Russia. By early August the number of fires raging out of control swelled to 170. Today, the number is probably closer to three hundred. Human-caused climate change is, yet again, scarring Russia with a terrible set of burn marks.

It is difficult to look at today’s Aqua satellite shot and not stand in fear and awe.

Great Burning in Russia, August 5, 2013.

Great Burning in Russia, August 5, 2013.

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

What we are looking at in this shot is the entirety of north-central Russia covered by a boiling cloud of smoke under which a massive field of fires burn. In the north, the large smoke cloud is now spilling out over the Kara Sea. In the south, we can see it just reaching northern Mongolia. In the east, a string of very large fires are roaring through tundra and boreal forest near western Kamchatka. And in the west, a broad tongue of smoke juts off the map and on toward Moscow whose skies are just starting to darken with smoke.

Though normally this massive swath of smoke would be driven eastward over Kamchatka and then into the Pacific Ocean, a combination of a very weak Jet Stream flow and powerful heat dome high pressure system is funneling this smoke westward in retrograde to the prevailing upper level wind flow. This anomalous pattern is similar to an upper level low that took a backward course over more than 3,000 miles of the US, marching all the way to the Pacific Ocean and into climate change weather weirdness history.  But, in this case, smoke from hundreds of wildfires is being driven backward against the prevailing wind flow for nearly 5,000 miles. In both the former and the latter cases, the typical Jet Stream pattern has been completely compromised as large backward eddies dominate major Northern Hemisphere regions for extended periods.

Closer in Modis shots with heat map imagery provide us with fire locations beneath the smoke dome (Hat tip to Colorado Bob for his sharp eye).

Russian Sea of Smoke and Fire West on August 4, 2013.

Russian Sea of Smoke and Fire West on August 4, 2013.

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

If you cut the ‘Great Burning’ image I posted above in half, this shot would represent its western portion. Each red dot in the image represents a single wildfire. Some, which you can identify by their smoke plumes, are readily visible. Others are entirely masked by the massive covering smoke cloud.

Great Burning Russia East

Russian Sea of Smoke and Fire East August 4, 2013

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

On the eastern side of this great burning area in Russia, we find new, very large fires raging over Arctic Siberia and spreading into Kamchatka. It is difficult to exaggerate the immense side of some of these burn zones with the largest measuring 250×250 miles at its widest points. In this image, the large scorch marks left over by some of these fires begin to become visible. But zooming in on today’s Modis image provides even more clairity:

70x30 mile scorch mark left by a single, still burning, Russian wildfire.

70×30 mile scorch mark left by a single, still burning, Russian wildfire.

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

In this shot, we find a massive 70X30 mile scorch mark scarring both tundra and boreal forest land in Arctic Siberia. Other, smaller scorch marks from past fires are also visible in this image. But this single, recent burn mark is just one of many that are now spreading out over similar regions of the Russian Arctic.

Unfortunately, heat and dry weather are expected to persist in this region for at least the next week. The forecast for Monday, August 12 calls for 77-86 degree or higher temperatures to remain in place over much of Arctic Russia with cooling confined to only the most northerly regions.

Large swath of 77-86 degree temperatures predicted to remain over Arctic Russia on Monday, August 12.

Large swath of 77-86 degree temperatures predicted to remain over Arctic Russia on Monday, August 12.

(Image source: Arctic Weather Maps)

UPDATE: FURTHER READING ON THIS EVENT FROM NASA

(Hat tip to Prokaryotes)

NASA provided an excellent report on this particular event four days ago that is well worth reading:

The summer of 2012 was the most severe wildfire season Russia had faced in a decade. 2013 might be headed in the same direction after an unusual heat wave brought a surge of fire activity in northern Siberia in July.

A persistent high-pressure weather pattern in the Russian Arctic—a blocking high—contributed to the heat wave, which saw temperatures reach 32° Celsius (90° Fahrenheit) in the northern city of Norilsk. For comparison, daily July highs in Norilsk average 16° Celsius (61° Fahrenheit). Blocking highs are so named because they block the jet stream from moving rain-bearing weather systems along their normal west-to-east path; this leads to “stuck” weather patterns with long periods of stable air and exceptional heat.

(Read more here)

 

Numerous Wildfires Still Raging Across American West, Greek Island Engulfed, Russian Blazes Smolder

In California, Idaho and Washington, large regions were still under threat of massive fires today.

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Across California, more than a dozen fires blazed forcing thousands to evacuate and threatening many homes. One northern California fire near the towns of Manton, Shingleton and Viola threatened more than 3,500 homes spread across a ridge near the blaze. In total more than 350,000 acres still burned across the state.

In Idaho, a fire on Trinity Ridge swelled to more than 15 square miles posing a major problem for the more than 1,000 firefighters currently battling the blaze. Hot temperatures and dry conditions were factors that added to the fire’s intensity. In Featherville, more than 350 homes were evacuated as smoke from a nearby blaze encroached on the community there.

Large fires continued to burn through central Washington as lightning strikes threatened firefighters’ efforts to contain blazes there. Fires in the Cascade range were mostly contained after having destroyed nearly 300 structures over the past week.

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Overseas, the Greek island of Chios suffered a major fire today. The blaze began early Saturday morning and has since swelled to a 16,000 acre inferno. Nearly 400 firefighters and 50 vehicles are currently involved in fighting the blaze. The Aegean island has lost the majority of its bee hives and a significant portion of its crops to the fire. Smoke from the blaze was visible 230 miles away in Crete.

In Siberia, the hottest temperatures in 170 years continued to contribute to sporadic blazes there.

Current estimates are that fires over Russia may rival the epic spree of fires that took place in 2010. However, since most fires have occurred in Siberia, these blazes appear to have resulted in less loss of life and property damage than that tragic year.

Furthermore, and somewhat off topic, it has been very difficult to find summer estimates for methane release in the Siberian tundra and East Siberian Arctic Shelf. We’re currently involved in researching the matter and hope to bring you more information shortly.

(Photo Credits: NASA)

 

Burning Rings of Fire: So Far this Summer, 6.4 Million Acres Consumed in US, 12 Million Acres Consumed in Russia

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The satellite image above was taken from space. It shows a region of Siberia where wildfires are consuming massive areas of tundra and woodlands. The ring-like structures you see are fires, their night-time glow visible to infrared cameras in space.

Not only has this summer shown unprecedented heat, drought, Greenland melt, and sea ice melt, we have also seen massive and expanding zones of wildfires across the northern hemisphere. In the US alone, 10,000 square miles has burned so far, making this one of the worst years in a decade of extreme fire years. In California, more than 8,000 firefighters were engaged in containing wildfires. In Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Wyoming, and Arizona, thousands more battled blazes as whole towns were evacuated.

In Russia, an army of nearly 200,000 firemen, nearly double the number of US soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan combined, and 40,000 vehicles struggled to get immense blazes under control. The level of activity on the ground is nearly equal to that of a war. And all just to fight this summer’s bought of climate-change enhanced wildfires. In total, preliminary reports show that 12 million acres had burned in Russia by early August with fires showing potential to reach or exceed the vast areas burned in 2010 by season’s end.

Across Spain, more than a dozen wildfires raged, forcing thousands of people to evacuate and killing 2 more there. The Canary Islands La Gomera forest, which has survived for 11 million years, was under threat of being consumed by a massive blaze that has already claimed ten percent of its woodlands. Spain has been suffering from fires since June when a massive blaze rained ash over the city of Valencia.

Unfortunately, these fires are spurred on by intense summer heat and extreme weather events influenced by climate change. And as we have seen over the past decade, as the globe has warmed, the frequency and severity of these blazes has increased.

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Links:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2012/08/07/nighttime-view-of-russian-wildfires-from-space/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+BadAstronomyBlog+%28Bad+Astronomy%29

http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2012/08/09/Fires-spread-in-Russian-Far-East/UPI-80681344529149/

http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Spains+Canary+Islands+says+fire+Gomera+burning+underground+that/7105033/story.html

http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2012/08/08/Wildfires-sweep-southern-Bulgaria/UPI-45601344446454/?rel=80681344529149

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/16/idaho-wildfire-2012_n_1787238.html?utm_hp_ref=green

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