Fires are erupting in Siberia this spring, sending billowing smoke into the western United States that’s tinted skies pink.
Some experts are concerned that Russia may lack sufficient military resources to extinguish the blazes, especially as activity increases in the summer, given its current invasion of Ukraine.
This April, wildfires have already appeared on the peatland soils of Far East Russia, activating firefighting services. The Russian Federal Forestry Agency reported that it extinguished more than 600 fires over 37,000 hectares nationwide last week.
One of the regions with the largest number of extinguished forest fires was in Siberia's Omsk Oblast. Videos from the Siberian Times showed wildfires raging across Omsk and Tyumen oblasts in Western Siberia, while satellite data also showed several fires across the landscape. Some of the fires have been burning for more than a week, even as lakes still appeared frozen.
Smoke from the Russian fires has already traveled thousands of miles, reaching the western United States. People have noted hazier skies, smokier sunsets, and reddish hues over the moon — features typically seen during the height of summer fire season.
The National Weather Service office in Tucson posted a Twitter thread tracing the origins of the smoke, which revealed scores of fire hot spots sensed by satellites over Russia. Smoke from one particularly large fire wrapped into a storm system that tracked across the Pacific Ocean and reached the West Coast on Saturday. The Weather Service also wrote that some of the smoke reaching the West Coast originated from Mongolia and China, while dust from the Gobi Desert may have been mixed in with the smoke.
Fire activity in Siberia has picked up in spring in recent years. Wildfires have occurred in these oblasts around the same time in 2020 as well. Fires appeared in late April last year, although the largest clusters began burning in the Sahka region in the Russian Far East in early May.
“The data are showing that the fires are occurring in the spring fire season, but there has been a high number of fires and the daily total intensity/emissions were well above average for the early stages of the season,” said Mark Parrington, a senior scientist with the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, in an e-mail.
In a news conference April 21, the Russian Federal Forestry Agency said firefighters are prepared and will work on high alert to supervise and prevent fire events in upcoming weeks. The head of the agency, Ivan Sovetnikov, said that around 90 percent of spring forest fires are associated with human activities — fires spread to the forests from other lands, are caused by prohibited agricultural burns or through carelessness. The agency will deploy firefighting services such as unmanned aerial vehicles, helicopters, drones, and even artificial precipitation.
However, some think Russia's current invasion of Ukraine could reduce firefighting resources, as many personnel have been deployed, along with a great deal of equipment. As fires intensify with summer's approach, the Russian military has often aided firefighting efforts in past years. Helicopters and planes can dump water to quell blazes, while thousands of ground troops wade through swamps and the intense heat to put out fires.
“There’s no question that Ukraine has been a huge drain on the ground resources for Russia,” Colonel Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies International Security Program. “They moved a lot of troops outside of the country. Any troops that are going back are pretty beat up. It’s going to be harder to fight the [fires].”
Even under non-war circumstances, many large fires continue to burn if they do not threaten major settlements because of already insufficient funding for firefighters.
Without appropriate firefighting resources, wildfires go unchecked and can spread uncontrollably, including on Siberia's carbon-rich soils. Much of the soil is composed of organic matter that is hundreds of years to millennia old, with large quantities of carbon buried deep within the permafrost. Fires can burn deep within the thawing soil, releasing large amounts of carbon and methane into the atmosphere.
The fires also release other harmful particles that can harm human health and the environment. For instance, black carbon can enter the lungs of people and animals and cause lung disease. It can also irritate eyes, noses, and throats. The tiny particles can also absorb incoming sunlight and heat the ground below, potentially further exacerbating fire conditions in the area.
While it's too soon to project the intensity of wildfire activity for the remaining spring and summer, rising global temperatures have increased recent fire seasons and will probably continue to do so. Studies have shown that the number of forest fires and the size of the burned area increased in Siberia in recent decades, correlating with air temperatures and drought. Computer models also show that rising global temperatures will dry out vegetation in the region, increasing the annual number of fire danger days and large blazes, particularly in southern Siberia and central Yakutia in the Russian Far East.
The past few years have highlighted this threat. At one point in 2021, fires in Siberia were larger than all other fires currently burning in the world. From June 1 to Aug. 1, fires emitted a record-breaking amount of carbon for the Yakutia, also known as the Republic of Sakha.
A report by the European Commission ranked carbon emissions from last year's Arctic wildfires as the fourth highest in almost two decades. These levels were considered "normal" compared to the historically active seasons of 2019 and 2020, said Parrington, who said those years had higher fire activity across the Arctic Circle than 2021, although not necessarily in Sakha.
“It’s difficult to say if these are indicative of what we could expect for the summer - I expect there will be fires in more eastern regions of Siberia, and possibly in the Arctic, during the summer,” wrote Parrington. “The fire risk is likely to be high based on the climate anomalies (i.e. warmer and drier conditions) in recent years and months. The locations and duration will depend on the meteorological conditions, though.”