Siberian wildfires cover area larger than Greece
Wildfires in Russia have burned across an area larger than the size of Greece so far in 2020, Greenpeace Russia said Monday, 20 July 2020, as it criticised the authorities of inaction. Using satellite data, Greenpeace Russia estimated that 19 million hectares (47 million acres) burned across Russia's forests, steppes and fields from January to mid-July. The country of Greece, by comparison, is more than 13 million hectares in size. Forest fires, some caused by lightning and others by campfires along river banks, covered 10 million hectares, the environmental NGO said. It called on Russian authorities to accelerate efforts on stopping toxic smoke haze from covering major cities in the region, including Yakutsk, Ugorsk and Sovetsky. “This summer has already brought extreme heat waves, oil spills caused by thawing permafrost and raging forest fires, what next before we finally act on climate?” Greenpeace Russia’s head of fire fighting Grigory Kuksin said. Russia's Federal Forestry Agency has identified 10,1 million hectares of wildfires raging across the country since the start of the year. More than half of the blazes were located in forests and over 90 percent burned in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Russian officials said that more than 9 000 fires have destroyed 1,2 million hectares of forests.
The Russian agency Avialesookhrana, responsible for the aerial forest fire management, has found that wildfire coverage is higher than usual and also much earlier. Thanks to the historic heatwave in June. Around half of the forest coverage in Russia is located in remote areas where they are hardly accessed. Therefore, fire fighters are allowed to let them rage the wild if fires don’t threaten nearby towns with residents.
While most of the fires occur in remote areas, Greenpeace said harmful smoke has spread to larger cities, as well as many small towns and villages. This smoke is negatively affecting air quality in the region, which could exacerbate the symptoms of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases.
“Russia's sprawling Siberia region became a climate hotspot, heating up much faster than the rest of the planet. Russian authorities must work fast to stop cities being filled with toxic smoke haze. It's to stop economic cutbacks on forest protection and support national forestry to protect our health and our climate”, said Kuksin.
Activists said that some of the forest fires are the result of lightning but many were started by campfires on river banks. Another cause is purposeful large-scale burnings that get out of hand.
According to the country's Federal Forestry Agency, an emergency team was sent in to battle the fires in eight territories on Tuesday21 July 2020. Fire safety teams have also been introduced in 55 other regions in an attempt to contain the fires.
The agency said that 797 forest fires were extinguished in 43 regions of Russia just in the last week, covering more than 63 000 hectares, about 156 000 acres. It confirmed that humans and storms are the two main causes of the fires.
“Having been an atmospheric scientist for decades, not much surprises me. But the unprecedented Siberian heatwave which led to these fires, and more broadly the blazing pace of change in the Arctic, is shocking,” said CBS News meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli. “While it may seem remote to most people, it is one of the most alarming canaries in a coal mine, alerting us that humans are now a powerful force of nature. The extreme weather and ecological impacts in Siberia this year vividly illustrate we have a very limited time to act to avoid the worst impacts of human-caused climate change.”
Last year’s wildfires in Siberia burned across an area the size of Belgium at their peak and emitted the equivalent of Sweden’s total annual carbon dioxide emissions in one month alone.
Experts warn that this year’s blazes, some of which may be remnants from last summer which survived through a historically warm and dry winter, could become the most destructive in history. Climate change is heating Russia at a rate more than twice the global average. The world’s fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter with an economy heavily dependent on oil and gas, Russia has been slow to take steps to curb its carbon emissions.
Sources: The Moscow Times, CBS News, Severe Weather