Enormous Wildfires Are Spreading in Siberia

Wildfires captured by the Copernicus Sentinel satellite.
Wildfires captured by the Copernicus Sentinel satellite.
Image: Pierre Markuse (Flickr)

Dry, warm weather has primed Siberia for wildfires this spring. After a moderate outbreak in April, the countryside has lit up in a major way in May. The fires are the latest in a litany of changes taking place in the northern part of the world.


Wildfires lit up last week in Russia’s Far East around Komsomolsk-on-Amur, a city of nearly 264,000. The Siberian Times published images of flames engulfing roads, fields, forests, and anything else in their path. In harrowing video published by RT, a conductor took his train right through the flaming countryside.

“We live and work in such complicated circumstances,” he said in his narration, which could also double as metaphor for life in 2018.

Satellite images captured late last week show active fires spanning an area nearly 290 km (180 miles) wide, according to remote sensing expert Pierre Markuse, who has been tracking the fires. Local news outlet Amurskaya Pravda reports that 671 firefighters are currently helping battle multiple blazes.

Beyond the wild flames, noxious smoke has engulfed the region. Residents in Komsomolsk-on-Amur described the conditions to the Siberian Times as a “smoky hell.” Their hell is visible from a million miles above the Earth’s surface. Mark Parrington, a wildfire researcher at the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, noted on Twitter that the smoke plumes were so large last week that they were visible on images snapped by the DSCOVR satellite.

The fires have been fueled by abnormally warm, dry weather. While the heat remains, rains have helped tamp down fire activity to start the week.

“Depending on the weather the next days might show more activity again,” Markuse told Earther via Twitter DM.

In Siberia, local farmers will often light fires to help clear cropland and replenish soil nutrients. Those fires can sometime burn out of control if winds sweep them up.


Natural spring and early summer fires are also commonplace in Siberia and elsewhere in the boreal forest that runs in a ring around the world, through Alaska, Canada and Scandinavia. But those fires are becoming more commonplace due to climate change and other human activities like farming.

The northern part of the world is warming faster than the planet as a whole. That heat is drying out forests and making them more susceptible to burn. A recent study found Earth’s boreal forests are now burning rate unseen in at least 10,000 years. This was evidenced last year, when smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted over the North Pole, and the year before when Fort McMurray was devastated by wildfires (and don’t forget Siberia then, too), and the year before, when it was Alaska’s turn to burn, and well, you get the point.


Those fires all release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating a dangerous feedback loop of increasing temperatures and worsening wildfire conditions. They’re a reminder we need to get ready for super fires fueled by climate change now. And that we need to cut carbon pollution before they get worse.

Managing editor at Earther, writing about climate change, environmental justice, and, occasionally, my cat.


Dense non aqueous phase liquid

Fire effects on methane emissions from a larch forest in Northeastern Siberia

I’ll just let the abstract do the talking, with a brief interlude from me in brackets, because I’m lazy:

Understanding how boreal forest fires affect the fate of soil carbon in northern permafrost regions is critical to our understanding of feedbacks from Arctic ecosystems on global climate change. The frequency and intensity of fires have been increasing across the northern boreal and tundra region. Fire makes permafrost vulnerable because it removes the insulating plant and organic layers. The removal of these insulating layers in Siberian larch forests underlain by ice and carbon rich permafrost can lead to ground subsidence and saturate soils. Saturated and anoxic soils are ideal conditions for the production of methane, which is ~30x more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Most boreal ecosystems are currently considered to be sinks for methane, but not much research has been done to study how fire may affect methane production in these regions. We predict that fires will increase methane production in boreal ecosystems underlain by permafrost due to increases in thaw depth, ice wedge thawing, and ground subsidence.

[yada yada yada]

These results show that fires in boreal forests underlain by permafrost may cause substantial changes in topography, leading to increased areas of anoxic environments that promote methanogenesis and increase CH4 emissions, possibly turning Siberian forests from a CH4 sink to a source.

Between siberian forest fires increasing methane flux from the near surface and those methane bubble craters exploding - how do you say feedback loop in Russian?