Fires in Russian Arctic release record quantities of carbon dioxide, studies say

Publish date: September 9, 2020

Unprecedented fires battering the Arctic have released more carbon dioxide this year than forest blazes over the entirety of 2019, new studies say, adding megatons of the greenhouse gas to the atmosphere at a time when the globe is trying to curtail such emissions.

The blazes come at a time when cities above the Artic Circle are setting heat records and melting permafrost is leading to industrial accidents. Russian weather officials and environmentalists have said climate change is a major factor driving the fires. But Moscow has so far been slow to take steps to limit its carbon emissions.

Nearly all of these northerly fires have struck Russia, the EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service and the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts jointly reported at the end of August. Fires in Greenland, Alaska and Canada have contributed as well.

The Arctic infernos have sent a quarter of a billion tons into the atmosphere since January – topping by more than a third the total emissions for 2019, according to satellite date, The Moscow Times reported.

The latest data, reported by Copernicus service, shows that by August 24, 254 megatons of CO2 had been released by fires this year. Last year’s figure was 181 megatons, the Guardian reported.

siberia fire lake baikal Smoke from Siberia's fires visible from Lake Baikal. Credit: Marik8616 from Pixabay

Mark Parrington, a scientist at Copernicus, told the Guardian that the previous record was surpassed in just a few weeks. “We haven’t seen this before,” he said. “The fire intensity is still well above average.”

Around 600 active fires had been observed in the region by late July, compared with 400 in 2019 and about 100 on average between 2003-2018, according to the data.

“We have seen two years of anomalously high activity, according to the satellite record that goes back to 2003,” Thomas Smith, assistant professor of environmental geography at the London School of Economics, told The Guardian.

Russia has borne the brunt of the conflagrations. In July, President Vladimir Putin mobilized the military to fight the blazes while four Siberian regions declared states of emergency. Russia’s Eastern Federal District, which includes parts of the Arctic Circle, emitted more than half-a-billion tons of CO2 from June to August 2020, also the highest amount to date, said The Moscow Times.

In June, Russia’s aerial forest protection service reported that 3.4m acres of Siberian forest were burning in areas unreachable to firefighters. Last summer, the Arctic fires were so intense that they created a cloud of smoke bigger than the landmass of the EU.

Siberia and the Arctic Circle are prone to large year-on-year temperature fluctuations, but the persistence of this year’s warm spell is unusual, Carlo Buontempo, director of the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service told Agence France Press in July.

“What is worrisome is that the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world,” he said.

In both polar regions, average temperatures have risen more than two degrees Celsius since the mid-19th century, mostly in the last 50 years. That is twice the global average.


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