After the oil spill that caused an environmental disaster near the Arctic city of Norilsk in late May, a wave of fires is raging some parts of Siberia like never before. Both phenomena are caused by an unusual and prolonged increase in temperatures in this part of the world. Scientists anticipate that warming will accelerate and economists anticipate that it will cause great headaches for Russia. The UN warns of the global consequences.
Between January and June, the temperature in Siberia was five degrees Celsius above average, and in June it was 10 degrees above normal in some areas.
This prolonged heat is causing not only numerous forest fires but also further melting of permafrost (the permanently frozen layer of land), which can lead to infrastructure damage. Northern Siberia is not very populated, but it is the territory where the main Russian energy companies are located, which may, according to a recent study, be the most affected in the future.
“Warming is faster at high latitudes compared to the planet’s average, due to so-called polar amplification. There are several hypotheses as to why it exists: from the fact that it is just an accident (somewhat unlikely) to the action of various feedback loops (first of all, ice melting in the Arctic). As a result, the heating occurs in Russia about two times faster than the global average,” according to Alexander Chernokulski, lead researcher of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Scientists anticipate that warming will accelerate and economists that it will cause great headaches for Russia
Alexei Kokorin, director of the Climate and Energy program at WWF Russia adds that “when the Arctic warms up, there is an exchange of air masses, from north to south and from south to north. The invasion of air from the south towards the Yakutia region is the phenomenon that we are seeing now in Siberia. It had happened before, but now it is more frequent and more intense”.
The United Nations has also reacted through the World Meteorological Organization. “The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the planet on average, which affects people’s lives, ecosystems and has global consequences,” its secretary-general, Petteri Taalas, said on Friday. Agency spokeswoman Clare Nullis said in Geneva that what is happening in Siberia is “truly exceptional.” “It has been hotter than in many parts of Florida and California,” she said. Nullis also noted that a rapid reduction of the ice sheet is being observed along the Arctic coast of Russia.
An example of that thermometer jump was from Verkhoyansk, a city in the Yakutia region where on June 20 there were an “unimaginable” 38 degrees. The elevation is significant because Verjoyansk is located north of the Arctic Circle and in winter it is close to 50 degrees below zero. It is the only place in the world colder than Antarctica and on one occasion it reached 67.8 degrees below zero.
“The trend is for the planet’s temperature to rise. And those spikes will be more and more frequent. In 2010, for example, that peak was recorded in the European part of Russia,” says Vasili Yablokov, head of the Climate section of Greenpeace Russia, referring to a year in which the images of Moscow covered in smoke became iconic.
“As an immediate consequence, the hot months are increasing, which translates into catastrophic fires,” says Yablokov. These have increased at least threefold since June, according to experts. The most affected regions are the Sakha (or Yakutia) republic, the Krasnoyarsk krai, and the Irkutsk and Amur provinces.
On July 22, the Air Forest Protection Service registered 131 active forest fires, and firefighters were responsible for putting out 82 of them. But the rest were in very remote and difficult to reach areas.
Warming in the Arctic and in Russia is twice as fast as in the rest of the world
“This year the wave of fires is occurring further north than in previous years. They have reached the edge of the Polar Circle,” explains Kokorin. “It is a strange phenomenon that we have observed even in the new Kytalik National Park, north of Yakutia, where there is tundra and moss.” Based on satellite imagery, the World Meteorological Organization said Friday that the border of the “northernmost” fires is now less than eight kilometres from the Arctic Ocean.
The day that more fires were detected this year was July 8, with 300 in the Siberian forests (taiga). As of last Monday, 1.62 million hectares had been burned, according to the Russian Forest Agency.
Vasili Yablokov believes that the Russian Government is not doing enough to prevent these catastrophes. “We have known for a long time that global warming exists. What is there to do then? The first thing is to put means to adapt to climate change because it is known that year after year the situation regarding fires is worsening. What the government has to do first of all is to increase financing for the protection of forests, increase the amount of machinery and personnel”.
A recent international scientific study, led by the Met Office (the UK’s Meteorological Service ), has carried out computer temperature simulations based on the current climate, with a degree Celsius higher than in the pre-industrial era, and has concluded that without human intervention these heat spikes would have occurred less than once every 80,000 years.
But what amazes scientists is why the current spike is taking so long. “It is very likely that this anomalous increase in temperature is associated with global warming since the probability of it occurring without it is negligible. The strange thing is that this anomaly is lasting more than six months,” says researcher Alexander Chernokulski. Although less pressing than fires, another consequence of these high temperatures is the thawing of permafrost.
According to Kokorin, the greatest impact on permafrost is expected for the next century. But it is already beginning to pose economic and ecological problems.
Verjoyansk in summer
The coldest point on Earth outside Antarctica has recorded 38 positive degrees
In fact, the spill of more than 20,000 tons of fuel from a deposit at Nornickel, the world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium, near the Arctic city of Norilsk, was officially attributed to the pillars that supported it collapsing when the permafrost melted.
“If the warming continues at the current rate, similar accidents will repeat themselves in increasingly catastrophic ways,” said Alexander Fyodorov, deputy director of the Permafrost Institute Melnikov, in Yakutsk, the capital of Yakutia.
Other Russian energy companies such as Gazprom, Novatek or Alrosa will be economically affected by this phenomenon, Morgan Stanley points out in a report published in Russia this week by the financial newspaper Védomosti. “Climate change in permafrost areas, which in Russia represents approximately 60% of its territory, reduces soil stability and creates risks for infrastructure,” says the document.
Russia is highly dependent on the resources of the Arctic region, especially oil and gas. About 90% of Russia’s gas and diamonds, 30% of oil and all of its palladium reserves, according to Morgan Stanley, are produced in areas covered by a thin layer of permafrost. This indicates that they could feel the impact soon.
The melting of permafrost only adds another obstacle to the global fight against climate change. “It is only the most superficial part that is melting. But that implies the emission into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and methane (greenhouse gas), which accelerates climate change and will end up affecting not only this region but the entire planet,” says Vasili Yáblokov from Greenpeace Russia.
Russia is the fourth country that emits the most greenhouse gases, after the United States, India and China. Although Moscow ratified the 2015 Paris climate agreement, it does not have to cut emissions, since its levels are still lower than those of 1990, when in times of the USSR the economy was heavily industrialized.
Polar bears, reindeer and endangered birds
Climate change, with the disappearance of the Arctic ice cap, fires and the melting of permafrost, is also affecting wildlife in Russia, especially in the Arctic. The consulted ecologists give several examples. “The disappearance of ice in the Arctic spring is so fast that polar bears cannot understand what is happening. Those who can follow the thawing process and stay on the edge of the ice will always find seals and fish to feed on. But most bears get stranded on the mainland coast. They can hunt small walruses and other animals. But it is easier to get closer to the populations and search in the garbage cans, which causes a conflict with humans “, explains Alexei Kokorin, director of the Climate and Energy Program of WWF Russia.
“With fires, the group of animals that are most at risk are birds. The reason is that, in addition to its habitat, its food source is transformed. For example, there are fewer fish. And this circumstance forces them to emigrate. Another very specific example is that of reindeer. This year the ice cap in the White Sea off the Kola peninsula has melted, eliminating a natural and traditional step in its annual migration,” says Vasili Yablokov, head of the Climate section of Greenpeace Russia.