With temperatures rising and a local drought turning forests into kindling, northern Siberia’s fires have become so widespread and intense close to cities that emergency authorities have ordered people to stay indoors for their health. The fires have also forced Russia to move faster to shut down smaller fires it would have once ignored.
Hundreds of intense wildfires are now burning through taiga forests in Siberia, most of which are unchecked. NASA's Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on Suomi NPP acquired this natural-color image of large clouds of smoke enveloping the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) on July 5, 2021. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory
Last weekend wildfires broke out simultaneously in multiple regions in Siberia’s northeastern region. Local officials reported the Sakha-Yakutia region had a total of 187 individual fire sites raging simultaneously. The burning trees, underbrush, and permafrost is currently pumping yellow and black smoke so thick into the atmosphere that an estimated 51 towns and smaller settlements are choking from the toxic air around them.
While forests burning in northern Siberia have been an increasingly common event this time of year as global heating has transformed the southern Arctic, in the past Russian authorities had chosen mostly to ignore fires in the more remote areas of the country and let them burn out. With population densities near these fires relatively small, the government had made the decision that since few lives were at risk and evacuations were easier to manage, that it would let nature just take its course.
This year Moscow made the decision that it cannot just let the fires burn in these regions any longer.
As this season’s most recent fires burst across the country’s northeast this weekend, Russia brought in military helicopters to bring firefighters from out of the area to help deal with the blazes. As of now, there are over 2,270 firefighters on the lines cutting fire lines in the ground, clearing brush, and attempting to put down the fires with chemicals and water.
Other military aircraft were deployed to seed clouds with liquid nitrogen and silver iodide, to induce rainfall.
Despite these combined efforts, the fires have already burned to the ground some 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of old-growth taiga forests in the area. Another 800,000 hectares (2 million) hectares are currently burning with the blazes continuing to spread at a rate of about 100,000 hectares a day.
The smoke has filled the skies so heavily that Russian authorities has been forced to shut down the main airport serving the region, near Yakutia. The Kolyma highway, a major trunk road there, is now closed. River traffic, another means of transport in and out of the region, has also been forced to shut down.
Emergency officials and scientists tracking the outbreaks say these fires are producing what is likely one of the worst air pollution catastrophes ever, anywhere in the world. The smoke brings with it large amounts of blackened and carcinogenic particulates which burrow deep into the lungs, affecting breathing now and likely to develop into more serious illnesses later. Once inhaled, the particles can poison the bloodstream and deposit in internal human organs.
On July 20, live air pollution monitoring showed regional levels of PM2.5 particles were presenting with concentrations of over 1000 micrograms per cubic meter. That is over 40 times the particulate concentrations the World Health Organization considers safe to breathe.
The smoke is also laced with chemicals such as benzene, hydrogen cyanide, ammonia, and ozone, some of which is from the attempts to fight the fires.
IQAir, a smartphone-based air quality app, reported air quality in the region as “life-threatening.” The readings are now worse than air quality measurements in dangerously smoggy cities of New Delhi and Ghaziabad in India, and Beijing and Hotan in China, where the PM2.5 levels hover around 110 mg/m3.
In the town of Yakutia, the entire population of some 320,000 in the city of Yakutsk has been forced to stay home except for emergency trips lasting less than an hour to buy groceries, to protect their health from these airborne hazards.
The fire season for Siberia began in early May with a scattering of breakouts in the small town of Oymyakon in northeast Yakutia. Those were tough to stop as well, requiring over 2,000 firefighters to be brought in from outside the region. Many were drafted, with the situation serious enough that local governments reportedly choose for the first time to draft even children to assist in the firefighting.
Since June 1 the fires have intensified. Satellite observations from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service estimates some 65 megatons of carbon have been dumped into the atmosphere since then and now. That is currently the second highest ever carbon emissions from wildfires in Siberia. At the current rate of burning, the final tally at the end of the summer will almost certainly surpass that number.
As to the causes of the fires, Russia itself has already declared global heating and the climate crisis as the chief culprit, but it will continue to accelerate fossil fuel development.
Greenpeace Russia forest department head Alexey Yaroshenko adds to that list inadequate forest management practices, few laws governing forestry practices and fire prevention, and cuts in funding related to protecting Siberia’s forests from what is happening right now.
“For many years, [local] propaganda has made people think that the climate crisis is a fiction, and if not fiction, that it will only benefit Russia since it will become more comfortable,” he said in a statement for reporters.
“Now the situation is starting to change,” he continued. “Little by little, people are beginning to understand that the climate is really changing, and the consequences are really catastrophic. But the majority of society and the majority of politicians are still very far from understanding the real scale of the problem.”