As permafrost thaws under intense heat, Russia's Siberia burns — again

It's hotter than ever in northern Russia and the implications for the earth's climate are significant. Currently, 1.77 million hectares of land are burning with expectations that the total fire area could eventually surpass the 17 million hectares that burned in 2019.

Russia's northern landscape is being transformed by heat and fire

Smoke rises from a forest fire burning in the far eastern Kamchatka region of Russia, in this still image taken from video released July 9. (The Aerial Forest Protection Service/Reuters)

Right around now, University of British Columbia climatologist and tundra researcher Greg Henry would usually be up at Alexandra Fiord on the central-east coast of Canada's Ellesmere Island experiencing the Arctic's warming climate up close. 

Instead, the pandemic has kept his research team grounded in Vancouver — and his focus has shifted to observing the dramatic events unfolding across the Arctic ocean in northern Siberia.

"It's remarkable — it's scary," said Henry of the incredible run of high temperatures in Russia's far north that have been breaking records for the past month.

This week, a European Union climate monitoring project reported temperatures in June were up to 10 degrees higher than usual in some parts of Russia's Arctic, with an overall rise of five degrees.

The heat and dry tundra conditions have also triggered vast forest fires. Currently, 1.77 million hectares of land are burning with expectations that the total fire area could eventually surpass the 17 million hectares that burned in 2019.

Equally striking is where the fires are burning.

"Now we are seeing these fires within 15 kilometres of the Arctic Ocean," said Henry. "Usually there's not much fuel to burn there, because it's kept cold by the ocean so you don't get ignition of fires that far north."

WATCH | Siberian heat wave, forest fires could have global consequences:

Siberian heat wave, forest fires could have global consequences

3 years ago
Duration 2:12
Siberia is normally one of the coldest places on Earth, but a recent heat wave is stoking large forest fires and raising concerns about what it signals for climate change.

This year though, he said the heat has dried the ground out enough to change the dynamics.

"It's a harbinger of what we are in for because the Arctic has been warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet."

Environmental disaster

The huge bubble of warm air that parked over Siberia has remained remarkably stationary over northern Russia,  meaning Canada's Arctic has largely been spared the soaring temperatures.

Members of Russia's Aerial Forest Protection Service help to put out a forest fire in Krasnoyarsk region, Russia, in this still image taken from an undated handout video obtained by Reuters on July 10. (The Aerial Forest Protection Service/Handout via Reuters)

"Alert, the furthest north weather station, went up to 14 or 15 degrees in mid-June when it should have been zero or two. So that may be a bit of that heat tendril dipping down," said Henry.

But in Russia, the heat wave is altering the landscape with severe implications.

In late May, extreme heat may have thawed the permafrost at an industrial site near the Arctic city of Norilsk causing what some critics are calling one of Russia's worst ever environmental disasters.

More than 20 million tones of diesel fuel escaped from a containment area and turned the water in a nearby river a deep shade of red, prompting President Vladimir Putin to declare a state of emergency.

Rescuers work at the site of a huge leak of fuel into the river after an accident at a power plant, in this still image taken from video, outside Norilsk, Russia June 2. (Severny Gorod/Reuters)

Putin has fined the company and chastised local officials for letting the spill happen, but the damage to the polluted area may last for decades.

Fire damage

It's Russia's vast forests, however, that appear to be bearing the brunt of the damage.

"The frequencies and intensities of fires in Siberia have increased much due to climate change," said Anton Beneslavskiy, the wildfire coordinator with Greenpeace Russia in Moscow.

"On this scale, the fires are unmanageable."

Greenpeace has long argued that the Kremlin's rules and policies on fighting forest fires have made the challenges brought on by hotter, dryer weather worse.

Russia has the largest forested area in the world, much of it sparsely settled.   

Greg Henry of UBC has been visiting Canada's Arctic for almost 40 years, chronicling the impact of climate change. (Mike Zimmer/CBC)

Beneslavskiy said a 2006 change to Russia's fire management law gave local authorities the legal right to ignore fires if there is low risk to local populations and when suppressing them makes little economic sense.

He said the result is that smaller fires which are initially possible to manage grow quickly to become extreme events. 

'Annual catastrophe'

"This lack of will to solve the problem brings us to catastrophe every year," said Beneslavskiy.

"It's a vicious cycle. More fires produce more climate change and more climate change fuels more fire." 

Editorials in local Siberian newspapers routinely call on the Putin government to put more money into the fight against forest fires.  After last summer's disaster, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev promised to reconsider the firefighting policy.

Anton Beneslavskiy is a Moscow-based member of Greenpeace Russia who coordinates its response to Russia's wildfires. (Alexey Sergeev/CBC)

Since then, however, Greenpeace and other local environmental groups claim there's little evidence anything has changed.

Kremlin-appointed officials insist they are throwing everything they have at containing the worst of the wildfires, with more than 1,300 firefighters and 130 pieces of equipment deployed in the Krasnoyarsk region of southern Siberia alone, according to the TASS news service.

Another report Friday on state owned NTV said local authorities plan to deploy 120 paratroop fire fighters from the air to help build fire breaks.

Russia's economy is heavily dependent on resources from its Arctic region — especially oil and gas — and it's the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, after the U.S., India and China.

But while Russia has ratified the Paris Climate accord, it is not required to cut emissions as they are still lower than 1990 levels, when the Soviet economy was heavily industrialized. 

Economic losses

The Moscow Times reports economic losses from thawing permafrost alone is expected to cost Russia's economy up to $2.3 billion US per year. Last year's fires likely cost rural communities in the region almost $250 million US.

Rescuers work at the site of a huge leak of fuel into the river after an accident at a power plant outside Norilsk, Russia, in this handout picture released June 4, 2020. (Marine Rescue Service/Handout via Reuters )

In March, Russia announced 29 measures it would be taking to try to deal with climate change over its vast landmass but critics complained the efforts have been more focused on exploiting natural resources in the Arctic than mitigating the impacts of a warming climate.

"They are actively going after every mineral and oil and gas deposit that they can," said UBC's Greg Henry. "We haven't taken that (approach) into our Arctic."

But Siberia's heat and fires — as bad as they are — don't come as much of a surprise to veteran Arctic climate watchers.

"I've been going up since 1980, and it scares me now to see how much things have changed," said Henry.   

"That is the new normal, the rapid change."


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.