Siberia Shakes As Frozen Grounds Burn


Northeast Siberia is a place where people are keeping up with Arctic temperatures step-by-step. But 100 degree days is another matter entirely.

MAGARAS, Russia — On a sweltering and painfully smoky evening on the expanse of Siberia’s rapidly warming permafrost, the call for help lit up villagers’ phones at 7:42 am.

“We request all men to come to the town hall at 8 pm urgently,” said the WhatsApp message from the mayor. “The fire has reached the highway.”

A farmer jumped into a tractor pulling a large bag of blue water and rolled into a foreground fog. The ever-thickening smoke blocked the sunlight and the wind blew ash on his unprotected face. The flames on the highway glowed orange and hot, licking the swaying trees by the roadside.

“We need a bigger tractor!” The driver soon shouted, aborted his mission, and raced back into town as fast as his roaring machine could pick him up.

For the third year in a row, residents of Northeast Siberia have been shaken by the worst wildfires they can remember, and many feel helpless, angry and alone.

They endure the coldest winters outside of Antarctica with very few complaints. But in recent years Temperatures in the Russian Arctic It went up to 100 degrees and fed enormous flames that melted the once permanently frozen ground.

Last year, wildfires burned more than 60,000 square miles of forest and tundra, an area the size of Florida. That’s more than four times the area burned in the United States during the devastating 2020 fire season. More than 30,000 square miles have burned in Russia this year, according to government statistics, with the region only two weeks into the peak fire season.

In northern Siberia, which is warming faster than almost anywhere else in the world, the extraordinary summer heat of recent years has made massive fires possible, scientists say. And the effect can be felt far from Siberia. Fires could potentially accelerate climate change by releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gases and destroying Russia’s vast boreal forests, which absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

According to Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service in Reading, England, record-breaking fires in the remote Siberian region of Yakutia released roughly as much carbon dioxide as all fuel consumption in Mexico in 2018. .

Now Yakutia, a region four times the size of Texas with its own culture and Turkish language, is on fire again.

For some days this month, heavy smoke hung over the capital, Yakutsk, the coldest city in the world, causing residents to water their eyes and scratch their throats. Outside the city, the villagers are consumed by the war by fire, shoveling trenches to keep them out of their homes and fields, quenching their thirst by digging up layers of buried ice in the ground.

Life here revolves around the boreal forest known as the taiga. Blackberries are a source of mushrooms, meat, timber and firewood. When it burns, the permafrost underneath thaws faster, turning lush forests into impenetrable swamps.

Some wildfires are normal, but scientists say they’ve grown at an extraordinary rate over the past three years, threatening the sustainability of the taiga ecosystem.

“If we don’t have a forest, we don’t have a life,” said Maria Nogovitsina, a retired kindergarten principal in the village of Magaras, with a population of about 1,000, 60 miles outside Yakutsk.

As many villagers have done lately, Ms. Nogovitsina made an offer to the ground to keep the fires at bay: she tore up some Russian pancakes and sprinkled fermented milk on the ground.

“Nature is angry with us,” he said.

The people of Yakutia are also angry. They say authorities are doing little to combat the fires, a sign that global warming could have a political cost for governments.

Four-day trips to Yakutia this month have elicited an almost universal feeling that the Russian government does not understand the plight of the people. And instead of accepting official explanations that climate change was responsible for the disaster, he repeats many conspiracy theories, including that the fires were deliberately set by dishonest officials or businessmen hoping to profit from them.

“I haven’t seen it, but that’s what people say,” said Yegor Andreyev, 83, who lives in Magaras. “There are no fires in Moscow, so they don’t care less.”

In Magaras, Mayor Vladimir Tekeyanov said he has applied for government grants to purchase drones, GPS equipment and radios. Forest ranger Vladislav Volkov, who rode a bulldozer in the charred forests outside the village, said he could not see the extent of the fires due to a lack of aerial surveillance. But when he retrieved a malfunctioning tractor he had left behind a few days ago, he discovered that there was a new fire in the vicinity.

“A fire doesn’t wait while you wait for spare parts,” he said.

Russia, in a way, can benefit from climate change because warmer weather creates new fertile soils and opens the once frozen Arctic Ocean to more trade and resource extraction. But the country is also uniquely vulnerable, with two-thirds of its land made of permafrost that bends the soil, shreds roads and undermines buildings. while dissolving.

President Vladimir V. Putin has for years denied the fact that humans are responsible for warming the climate. But last month, he delivered a new message. annual call show He warned, along with the Russian people, that thawing permafrost could have “very serious social and economic consequences” for the country.

“Many rightly believe that this is primarily linked to human activities, polluting emissions into the atmosphere,” Putin told the audience. “Global warming in our country is happening even faster than in many other parts of the world.”

Mr Putin signed a law This month it paved the way for carbon regulation in Russia, the world’s fourth largest polluter, by requiring businesses to report their greenhouse gas emissions. Russia hosted President Biden’s climate ambassador, John Kerry, at the talks in Moscow this week, signaling its readiness to work with Washington on tackling global warming despite conflicts on other issues.

Yet Russia’s war continues against familiar prohibitions: rigidly centralized government, an expanding law enforcement, and distrust of the state. As the wildfires spread in June, prosecutors launched criminal investigations against local authorities for alleged failure to fight the fires.

“People fighting forest fires were close to being arrested,” said Aleksandr Isayev, a forest fire expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Yakutsk. “Activities suspended”

Then, earlier this month, people in Yakutia were outraged at the Russian Ministry of Defense. sent An amphibious aircraft to Turkey to help the geopolitically important country fight wildfires. Five more days passed before the Russian government announced that it would send military planes to put out the fires in Yakutia.

“This means that Moscow has not noticed yet,” said Aleksandr N. Fedorov, deputy director of the Melnikov Permafrost Institute in Yakutsk.

On a recent Friday evening, volunteers in the village of Bulgunnyakhtakh, south of Yakutsk, piled into trucks and an open trailer and battled for two hours in the mosquito-infested forest. They filled water trucks in a pond and drove to the edge of a cliff overlooking the majestic Lena River and realized they had gone the wrong way: The fire was in the valley below.

Some of the men climbed downhill while others tried to tie fire hoses together to reach them.

“There are no firemen here,” one man muttered. “Nobody knows how to use these things.”

Volunteers working with backpack pumps on a northern night seemed to be getting the small fire under control, which they feared could threaten their village. But one thing was clear, according to one of the volunteers, Semyon Solomonov: Any victory against the ravages of the changing climate would be temporary.

“This is not a phase, this is not a cycle – this is the end of the world,” said Mr. Solomonov. “Mankind will perish and the age of the dinosaurs will come.”

Nanna Heitmann contributing reporting.


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