We Regret To Inform You That The Siberian Arctic Is On Fire — Again

NASA's Aqua Satellite shows wildfire activity (red) and smoke in Siberia on June 22, 2000. NASA

The Arctic is on fire, once again. The Siberian Arctic has endured record high temperatures for the second year running and is now set ablaze with some of the worst wildfires seen in recent memory.

The Copernicus Climate Change Service, the EU’s Earth observation program, has recently reported there are currently record levels of wildfires in the Siberian Arctic, a vast northern region of Russia, which has surpassed the record-breaking fire activity seen just last year.

Wildfire activity tends to appear in the boreal forests of the Siberian Arctic each year around early May. However, this year’s have been freakishly prevalent. The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service estimates that 59 megatonnes of carbon dioxide was pumped into the atmosphere during June 2020, up from last June's 53 megatonnes of CO2. According to NASA, the Russian agency for aerial forest fire management has reported that 3.4 million acres of land — an area almost the size of Connecticut — is burning in inaccessible areas of Siberia.

By no coincidence, the region has been hit with an unusually hot spring. While June 2020 saw global temperatures up 0.53°C higher than the average June between 1981-2010, average temperatures in the Siberian Arctic reached as high as 10°C (18°F) above normal for June. One weather station in the far-north town of Verkhoyansk picked up a temperature of 38°C (100.4°F) on June 20.

 

Surface air temperature anomaly for June 2020 relative to the June average for the period 1981-2010. Note the deep red in Siberia, northern Russia. Data source: ERA5. Credit: Copernicus Climate Change Service/ECMWF.

Warmer weather, thawing tundras, and dry vegetation all help to create the ideal circumstances for the wildfires to rip through larger swathes of land. 

“Higher temperatures and drier surface conditions are providing ideal conditions for these fires to burn and to persist for so long over such a large area," said Mark Parrington, CAMS Senior Scientist and wildfire expert at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecast (ECMWF), in a statement. "We have seen very similar patterns in the fire activity and soil moisture anomalies across the region in our fire monitoring activities over the last few years.” 

Unraveling the precise cause of these conditions is a fiddly task. However, the notable changes are inseparable from the wider global trend of climate change. Numerous research has shown that the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, primarily due to its loss of sea ice. As increasingly more ice melts, less solar radiation (sunlight) is reflected back from Earth and more is absorbed by the darker ocean surface and land. This creates a vicious cycle whereby the temperature increases, which results in further sea ice loss, and so on. 

“Finding what caused these record temperatures is not a straightforward endeavor as there are many contributing factors interacting with each other. Siberia and the Arctic Circle in general have large fluctuations from year to year and have experienced other relatively warm Junes before,” Director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) at ECMWF, Carlo Buontempo, explained. 

“What is worrisome is that the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world. Western Siberia experiencing warmer-than-average temperatures so long during the winter and spring is unusual, and the exceptionally high temperatures in Arctic Siberia that have occurred now in June 2020 are equally a cause for concern.”

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