Hauntingly Freakish Siberian Wildfires Now Flicker to Life in April

This past winter has been ridiculously warm for large sections of Siberia. From the Yamal Peninsula to Lake Baikal to the thinning ice of the Arctic Ocean and back down to the Sea of Okhotsk, temperatures have ranged from 4 to nearly 7 degrees Celsius above normal throughout the entire first quarter of 2017.

(4th Consecutive year of extreme Siberian cold season warmth brings with it the heightened risk of early wildfires. Image source: NASA GISS.)

Climate reanalysis shows these far above average temperatures extending well into April. And, as a result, the Arctic chill that typically settles over this often-frozen region has been greatly reduced throughout winter and on into early spring.

2017 marks the 4th consecutive year of excessive winter warmth for this section of our world. A human-emissions-driven rise of abnormal heat that brings with it consistently earlier thaws, disruptive permafrost melt, and the freeing of new, deep-running, peat-like fuels for wildfires. A fuel that can smolder on through winter to again mar the land with new surface fires once the thin covering of snow draws back. An event that is occurring earlier and earlier as the decades and the great outpourings of oil, gas, and coal based carbon into the atmosphere wear on.

(Multiple wildfires and hotspots visible in this Sunday, April 22nd LANCE MODIS satellite shot of Siberia.)

On Saturday, April 22nd, the same day that tens of thousands of people marched to support climate scientists besieged by amoral corporate and political powers linked to the fossil fuel industry, multiple small fires flared along the thawing edge of that greatly warmed Siberia. A number of the more western blazes, intense enough to emit smoke plumes visible in these LANCE-MODIS satellite shots, appeared to have already expanded to over 1,000 acres.

By Sunday, the fires sparking closer to Lake Baikal further east had also grown their own series of tell-tale smoke plumes. One particular blaze in central Siberia appeared to have produced a 2.5 x 6 mile long burn scar in just one day (about 10,000 acres).

(40×60 mile section of Central Siberia on April 23 of 2017 shows large wildfires burning near the thaw line. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

This year’s early wildfire eruption in Siberia comes after 2014, 2015, and 2016 wildfire outbreaks during similar timeframes and following similarly abnormal warm periods. These fires tended to crop up south of Lake Baikal or closer to the China-Russia border. This year, the early fire outbreak appears to have emerged both further north and generally along a wider expanse than during past years.

If past years are any guide, we can expect the present fire season’s early start to produce blazes that continue through September and that peak sometime during late June through August. The fires will tend to be very large and will probably range as far north as the Arctic Ocean.

(By summer, wildfires in Siberia are now capable of repeatedly producing massive smoke plumes like this 2,500 mile long monstrosity that was visible from 1 million miles away in space during a 2014 event. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

These fires will gain ignition from new Arctic thunderstorms. They will be fed by new fuels such as thawing permafrost and trees harmed by northward invading species or by climates warming at rates far faster than they can handle.  And they will be capable of casting off gigantic smoke plumes that encircle the higher latitude reaches of the globe.

Instances of this kind are the upshot of new climate change related impacts. We wouldn’t have expected such a vast amount of Arctic and near Arctic burning over a 5 month fire season during the 19th or 20th Centuries. But the new very large cold-region fire outbreaks are happening in a world at around 1.2 C hotter than 1880s averages and warming. And, unfortunately, if we keep warming, we can expect a considerable worsening of these already troubling events.

Links:

NASA GISS

LANCE MODIS

Siberian Wildfires in April

Tens of Thousands turn out for Science March

Hat tip to Wili

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

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Unprecedented Early Start to ‘Perma-Burn’ Fire Season — Deadly Wildfires Rage Through Siberia on April 12

Permafrost. Ground frozen for millennia. An enormous deposit of organic carbon forming a thick, peat-like under-layer.

Forced to warm at an unprecedented rate through the massive burning of heat-trapping gasses by human beings, this layer is now rapidly thawing, providing an amazing source of heat and fuel for wildfire ignition.

Joe Romm over at Climate Progress has long called this region ‘Permamelt.’ But, with a doubling of the number of wildfires for the high Arctic and an extension of the permafrost fire season into early April this year, we may well consider this to be a zone of now, near permanent, burning — Permaburn.

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inside_burning_village_gv

(Massive outbreak of permafrost wildfires in Russia this week have left up to 34 villages in smoldering ruins. Image from Khakassia, Russia via The Siberian Times.)

For Khakassia, Russia the story this week has been one of unprecedented fire disaster.

Khakassia is located along a southern region of Siberia bordering northern Mongolia and Kazakhstan. It is an area that typically experiences cold temperatures — even in summer time. An area of frozen ground representing the southern boundary for Siberian permafrost. There, as with much of Siberia, temperatures have been forced to rapidly warm by human greenhouse gas emissions. And this added heat forcing has contributed to ever-more-powerful and extensive wildfires as the permafrost thawed — providing an ever-increasing volume of fuels for wildfires.

Last year, Siberian wildfires also came far too early — impacting a broad region near Lake Baikal, Russia during late April. But this year, the fires have come near the start of April. An extension of the burning season in Siberia inexorably toward the winter-spring boundary.

Khakassia Fires April 12 2015

(Extensive wildfires burn though Siberian Khakassia on April 12 of 2015. In the image, we can see down through a break in the cloud deck to view smoke plumes from scores of wildfires raging throughout the region. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 120 miles and the largest burn scars range from 3-5 miles across. As Siberian permafrost burn season progresses, we can expect fires that belch smoke plumes across the Northern Hemisphere emitting from burn scars as large as 30 miles or more across. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

This weekend, temperatures in Khakassia soared to 25 degrees Celsius — 15-20 degrees Celsius above average for daytime temperatures in this region even during recent warmer years (1979-2000). A near 80 degree Fahrenheit reading that would be warm in summertime — but one that cropped up in early April as a result of powerful and hot south to north air flows transporting heat across Asia and into the Arctic. These flows wound through Central Asia, warming Khakassia to record temperatures in their inexorable surge toward the pole.

The heat over Khakassia rapidly thawed surface vegetation, extending warmth deep into the thawing permafrost layer. The result was an outbreak of massive wildfires. Beginning this weekend the blazes have, so far, raged through 34 villages and been blamed for 1300 destroyed homes, the loss of nearly 4000 herd animals, 900 human injuries and 20 deaths. Such a fierce and destructive fire outbreak during summer would have been unprecedented. For this kind of event to occur in April, at the edge of Siberian winter, is nothing short of outlandishly strange.

Russian authorities have blamed the fires on a combination of hot weather and human burning. It is a tradition for Russian farmers to burn to clear fields during this time of year. And it is this practice that media is focusing on. However, traditional burning during spring did not historically result in the kinds of massive blazes that ripped through Khakassia earlier this week. Russian farmers, in this case, are unwittingly flinging matches into a tinderbed of rapidly thawing compost. A pile of warming and chemically volatile peat-like perma-burn that is providing more and more fuel for intense fires.

Links:

Siberian Wildfires — 17 Killed and Hundreds Injured as Blazes Sweep Through Siberia

Fire Death Toll Rises to 15 in Khakassia as Republic Mourns

Siberia Ravaged by Forest Fires

Permamelt — Climate Progress

When April is the New July — Siberia’s Epic Wildfires Come Far too Early

LANCE MODIS

A Dangerous Dance of Frost and Flame: More Than 100 Wildfires Now Raging Along Siberian Melt-Freeze Line

Anomalous, global-warming-enhanced, fires continued to erupt across Eastern Russia this week, chasing a rapidly receding freeze line north and into zones still frozen, but starting to shake off ice cover far too soon for comfort.

According to reports from Radio Free Europe, more than 5,000 pieces of heavy equipment and many more firefighters are now battling blazes throughout Siberia this week. As of April 20th, more than 100 blazes were reported in numerous regions including: the Orenburg area around Lake Baikal, the Amur region, the Birobidzhan Autonomous Oblast, the Primorsky Krai, and the Far Eastern region of Russia.

Multiple Wildfires Raging in the Amur Region of Russia

(Multiple wildfires raging in the Amur region of Russia on April 23, 2014. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

The fires come as temperatures ranging from 5-18 C above average continued throughout a region that has experienced hotter than normal temperatures all winter and on into spring of 2014.

For example, the average April high temperature for the region of Lake Baikal is typically a frigid 28 F, while this week is expected to see highs in the lower to middle 40s. Further east, the temperature extremes are more radical. In Amur Blagoveshchensk, the average low is about 27 degrees F for this time of year, the average high, about 50. But today the low was 52 and the high is forecast to be 78 — 25 and 28 degrees above average respectively.

All across Eastern Russia, the story is the same: above average warmth, early thaw, summer-like temperatures in spring time. It has been this way day after day, month after month. Since 2010, the story has mostly been the same: early thaw, record or near record heat, amazing fire hazard. Even more concerning, the situation is steadily growing worse.

How Global Warming is Turning the Siberian Tundra into a Firetrap

Winters during cold regions are typically comparatively dry events. Though snows may pile up, the water content of the snows amount to much less moisture than it would seem. During spring, a gradual thaw ensures this moisture keeps the thin, top layer of soil above the permafrost (called the active layer) from drying out too rapidly. Typically only inches to a few feet in depth, this layer is far more susceptible to drying than a deeper layer with access to greater moisture sources at depth. But only frozen or melting permafrost currently rest below the active layer, creating a moisture barrier or worse — adding a potential fuel source for wildfires.

Eastern Russia in a Hot Zone

(Eastern Russia in a hot zone. Hot atmospheric ridge and coincident extreme temperature anomalies stretching from Southeast Asia, up through China and Eastern Russia and on up through the polar region. Information Source: NOAA Global Forecast Systems Model. Image source: University of Maine.)

In years of warmer than usual temperatures, as has happened more and more often under the current regime of human-caused warming, the thaw occurs rapidly and the active layer quickly dries out. This loss of moisture amplifies into a kind of tundra drought that can block atmospheric moisture flows and prevent rainfall, compounding the drying problem until the more energetic storms of summer arrive.

In addition, expanding zones of thawing permafrost provide two added fuel sources for wildfires. Tundra melt in high water content areas forms into wet thermokarsts, mires or melt ponds that vent methane gas in high enough concentration to burn. Tundra melt that rapidly dries after thaw forms into a peat-like basement layer that can burn and smolder for long periods once ignited.

On average, temperatures have been rising by about .4 C per decade throughout Siberia. So almost every spring now falls into what would typically be called a hot year. In addition, amplification of Jet Stream wave patterns deliver proportionately more heat to regions in the up-slope of these high amplitude atmospheric pulses, forming hot, high pressure ridges. And this year, the heat ridge has consistently formed over China, Mongolia and Eastern Siberia — the region of the current large fire outbreaks.

Russian wildfire burning on the shores of still frozen Lake Baikal April 23 2014

(Siberian wildfires burning on the shores of still-frozen Lake Baikal in southern Siberia on April 23, 2014. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

As a result, what we are seeing is an extraordinary outbreak of intense wildfires directly adjacent to still melting snow and frozen lakes. A surreal event that reminds one of the ever-at-war frost and fire giants of ancient Viking legend. But these giants, the fire giants at least, are a direct result of an ongoing and ever increasing human-caused heating of our world.

Links:

Radio Free Europe

University of Maine

NOAA Global Forecast Systems Model

LANCE-MODIS

Melting Permafrost Switches to Nasty, High-Gear Methane Release

Blagoveshchensk Weather

Lake Baikal Weather

Earth Under Fire

Small Army Now Fighting Siberian Wildfires in April

Siberia. A land that, during the 20th Century, typically remained locked in ice well into early June. A land where a typical April was still more cold and harshly frozen than the rest of the world in winter.

But, over recent years, Siberia has been experiencing earlier and earlier thaws as average temperatures for the region jumped by about .4 degrees Celsius each decade. As the land’s permafrost began to draw back, it unlocked billions of tons of a peat-like under-layer. Organic material sequestered over hundreds of thousands of years of freezing conditions.

In moist areas, this carbon-rich layer produced methane gas as it thawed. In dry areas, its moisture steadily leeched out, creating a zone of highly combustible material beneath Siberia’s grasslands and forests.

By the mid-2000s enough of these flammable zones had been liberated to result in an increasingly severe fire hazard for much of Russian Siberia. At that time, a series of rather dangerous and intense fire seasons began to set up from late May to early June. Seasons that raged throughout summer and, in some years, produced clouds of smoke that blanketed large sections of the Northern Hemisphere.

2014 Fire Season Starts Far Too Soon

This year, the situation is markedly worse. A persistent high amplitude ridge in the Jet Stream has funneled heat up from China and Central Asia on into Siberia all throughout late winter and into early spring. The result was summer-like temperatures for a large section of Siberia during late March and into early April. This abnormal warmth set off an early thaw for large sections of Siberia and with that thaw has come an intense, far too soon, ignition to fire season.

To the west, Russia may well be embroiled by the conflict in the Ukraine. But the real battle is likely to be with heat and fire. And it is a battle already joined a month and a half earlier than expected. For by April 1, more than 2,000 hectares had erupted into wildfires. By April 9, more than 61 fires and 18,300 hectares were involved before firefighters contained them.

The blazes by April 15 had re-emerged in more violent form on the outer edges of Siberia — in the southern Yakutia region of Russia and in the Amur region, which experienced both epic floods and fires last year. The massive burn scars in these zones and huge plumes of smoke are now plainly visible in MODIS satellite imagery below.

Large burn scars Amur

(Large fires and burn scars in the Amur region of Russia on April 15 of 2014. In the above NASA satellite shot, we can see burn scars ranging from 5-15 miles in length just north and east of the Amur River. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

These various fires are now quite extensive, a single region featuring burn zones that likely cover an area more widespread than all the fires of a week before. The blackened scar of the largest fire here appears to blanket a zone of about 55 square miles, a region the size of a large city, or a single fire that alone burned through another 14,000 hectares. Visible estimates of the size of fires in the region depicted above are around 20,000 hectares, enough to more than double the area burned last week, bringing the incomplete total to around 38,000 hectares.

Russian reports, so far, haven’t confirmed the extent of these blazes, but when combined with totals from last week’s outbreak, they appear to be about twice as widespread as fires during the early and epic season of 2012 which, by April 15 had seen about 19,000 hectares burn.

As of early April, the blazes were enough to have drawn the emergency response of a small army of fire fighters. And by April 9, about 500 firefighters, scores of vehicles and multiple aircraft were engaged. But this early firefighting force is likely to seem small compared to the numbers that will be needed to combat infernos as the already anomalously warm and dry season continues to progress.

Links:

March 2014 Third Hottest on Record as Siberian Heatwave Spurs Fire Season to Early Start

In Siberia, Forest Fires Come Early This Year

Siberia Experiencing Mid Summer Temperatures and Wildfires in April

Voice of Russia: 15,000 Hectares of Wildfires Contained by April 9

TASS: 19,000 Hectares Burning in Russia on April 15

Smoke From Massive Siberian Fires Seen in Canada

LANCE MODIS

 

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