While the world watched California burn, fires consumed more land in Russia this summer than all of the world’s other fires combined.
The northern hemisphere fire season of 2021 is one for the record books. But while most of the world watched the months of wildfires burning in California, 18.2 million hectares (almost 49 million acres) burned in Russia. At one point, more than 300 wildfires were burning simultaneously in Siberia and the land area impacted is now bigger than all of the world’s other summer fires combined.
The Russian weather monitoring institute, Rosgidromet, reported that as of August, more than 34 million acres had burned throughout the summer. By comparison, the California wildfires last year, which were the worst on record at the time, scorched just under 4.4 million acres.
Siberia, a place best known for its cold, once reaching a record low of minus 89.9 Fahrenheit, has been ravaged by heat and fire. Russian news reported that blazes in June were so intense that they drove temperatures on the ground as high as 118 degrees Fahrenheit in Russia’s Arctic region. While many of the fires were started by human activity such as campfires, the combination of heat, dry soil and dry vegetation set the stage for record-breaking impacts, the biggest seen since satellite monitoring began.
Many of the fires burned without any attempt to restrict them due to their remote locations and sheer numbers. Despite the devastating impact on Russia’s boreal forests, large population centers were spared.
Related: America’s drought-fueled fire season: ‘Unyielding, unprecedented, costly’
It is the impact on the vast Siberian permafrost, however, that concerned scientists most. An incredible 65% of Russia is covered by permafrost. When this permafrost thaws, soil microbes begin to decompose and release even more CO2 into the atmosphere, along with methane, a greenhouse gas that is an estimated 30 times more potent. The release of these emissions, which have been stored within the permafrost for thousands of years, represents an entirely new global climate change challenge.
The European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) estimated the intense northern hemisphere fires in July and August saw the highest global carbon emissions ever recorded in the datasets. The fire season in northeast Siberia has been “unusual, not just in size but also the persistence of high-intensity blazes since the beginning of June,” according to CAMS. The burning also lasted longer than in previous years, continuing through early September.
When this permafrost thaws, soil microbes begin to decompose and release even more CO2 into the atmosphere, along with methane … emissions which have been stored within the permafrost for thousands of years …
During August, the Russian city of Yakutsk issued a “stay at home” advisory for its population of 300,000 due to the health risks from smoke. Aisen Nikolayev, head of the Sakha Republic, encouraged all residents to stay home from work and school. Smoke caused poor visibility and dangerous flying conditions prompting flight cancellations and delays at the Yakutsk airport.
The global health impacts from smoke are increasing as the number of fires and length of fire seasons increase. A recent study, published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health, estimates that 33,510 people die because of smoke every year.
NASA satellites showed that the wildfire smoke had traveled some 3,000 km (1,864 miles) from Siberia, causing a “vast, thick, and acrid blanket of smoke” at the North Pole.
“The smoke, which was so thick that most of the land below was obscured from view, stretches about 2,000 miles from east to west and 2,500 miles from south to north,” NASA reported. “But it captures only a small part of the smoke from the Russian fires.”