Siberia is burning.
Russia’s enormous but sparsely populated Asian landmass is experiencing record-breaking temperatures, the fifth year in a row it has done so.
But this year has brought unprecedented forest fires that have devastated a territory the size of the state of Washington, and blanketed vast areas with thick air pollution. Cities that have seldom seen summer temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit have been sweltering under a hot season that began a month early this year, and has been consistently delivering daily temperatures several degrees above average.
Scientists say Siberia is warming at twice the global average – leading to extreme weather events, severe environmental deterioration, and serious complications for human habitation. And, they warn, it is a climate catastrophe that might be just beginning.
“If these temperatures repeat themselves next year, the situation on the southern fringe of Siberian forests is going to become critical,” says Nadezhda Chebakova, a researcher at the Sukachev Institute of Forest in Krasnoyarsk. “In the long run, something has to be done about the emissions of greenhouse gases.”
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The ongoing forest fires are estimated to have so far released 56 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – more than the annual emissions of some midsized European countries. And the toxic haze from the fires has reportedly settled over several towns, aggravating health conditions – and moods – for many inhabitants who are still under obligatory coronavirus lockdown.
Meanwhile, high temperatures are accelerating the melting of Russia’s 17 million square miles of permafrost above the Arctic Circle. That has caused at least one disastrous industrial accident, and threatens the integrity of the entire region’s infrastructure, including pipelines, roads, and housing.
The receding permafrost has exposed copious remains of long-extinct woolly mammoths, frozen for thousands of years beneath the tundra, sparking worries of a new “gold rush” to harvest the prehistoric beasts’ valuable ivory tusks. But the melting earth also threatens to disgorge huge amounts of greenhouse gases, such as methane, that have been locked in the ice throughout human history, threatening incalculable future consequences.
The near-complete disappearance of sea ice off Russia’s northern coast this year has proved an economic boon, with shipping companies predicting that year-round navigation through the once icebound Northeast Passage might soon become possible. For over a decade Russia has been preparing to exploit the vast trove of resources opening up as the Arctic ice pack recedes and has been steadily building infrastructure, including military bases, to promote that effort. But scientists fret that the declining albedo, or reflectivity, of the vanishing ice sheets will only create a negative feedback loop that accelerates the melt-off in coming years.
“These phenomena are unprecedented,” says Valentina Khan, deputy director of the Hydrometeorological Research Center of the Russian Federation, part of the national weather service. “What we are witnessing is not just a rate of warming over Siberia and the Arctic that’s two or three times the global average, but changes in atmospheric patterns. There is the likelihood in future of more extreme weather events, which will be greater in their frequency and duration.”
“We have been warning about this”
A team of international researchers has concluded that this year’s Siberian heat wave would have been virtually impossible without man-made climate change. It’s a view the Russian government has been slow to accept, but most Russian scientists now admit that it must be deemed a permanent factor.
“What we’ve seen here in central Siberia is an absolutely abnormal April, with temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius [86 F], and in general temperatures about 2 degrees above the 100-year average,” says Dr. Chebakova. “It’s pretty clear that we are looking at a general warming trend, and 90% of Russian scientists believe it is caused by human activity.”
Environmentalists are beside themselves with dread and frustration.
“We have been warning about this for at least two decades, and successive Russian governments have failed to take heed,” says Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of Ecodefense, one of Russia’s oldest – and perennially embattled – environmental organizations. “Now it’s happening, and they are still in denial. Of course there is much more reliable information about global warming and the growing environmental catastrophe in the Russian media than there was 10 years ago, and scientists are talking about it more. But we still don’t hear much from government officials.
“What we need to see, urgently, is the creation of an adaptation plan. Two decades ago, we might have concentrated on reducing greenhouse gases. But now we have a warming process that’s well underway, and it’s going to be with us for some time,” he says. “For instance, we need proper management of forests, with better fire prevention and firefighting capacities, yet the numbers of people doing these things have been steadily reduced. The main approach in play right now appears to be to wait for autumn, for the rains to come. But what about next year?”
“A lack of official responsibility”
The government’s lack of preparedness became clear at the end of May after melting permafrost caused fuel tanks to rupture at a power station belonging to the huge NorNickel mining and smelting company, near the city of Norilsk in Siberia’s far north. The spill released 20,000 tons of diesel fuel into the soil and nearby rivers, creating what local activists described as an “environmental catastrophe.” A few days later, President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency in Norilsk, but the damage to the delicate northern ecosystem seems set to persist for decades.
“The main problem is a lack of official responsibility,” says Vassily Yablokov, climate project manager at Greenpeace Russia. “The dangers of melting permafrost have been obvious for years. But big business cares only about maintaining the status quo, exploiting nature in profitable ways. So they never invested in prevention. Then they tried to cover up the accident, and failed to act swiftly to contain the damage. That’s why we can say that the human factor is the key problem here.”
Mr. Slivyak of Ecodefense says the reason for the Russian government’s reluctance to face and adapt to the realities of long-term climate change is that it would mean calling into question Russia’s basic economic strategy.
“We have had the same strategy for the past 50 years, which is to ramp up extraction of fossil fuels, mostly for export,” he says. “Russian officials may be learning to talk the talk about climate change at international forums, but whenever issues of economic development come up, the chief goals are always more oil, gas, and coal. They are just not ready to accept that without radical adaptations, this is going to get worse, much worse.”