Apr 22, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Scientists fear Ukraine war will worsen Siberian wildfires

Firefighters battle a blaze in Sakha, Russia in August 2021.

Firefighters work to extinguish a wildfire in the village of Kuel in Yakutia, Sakha, Russia, on Aug. 8, 2021. Photo: Ivan Nikiforov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A tragic link between war and global warming could unfold imminently in Siberia: Wildfires that spew emissions may burn out of control because Russian military units that normally locate and fight them are in Ukraine.

Why it matters: Russian wildfires are a major source of carbon dioxide emissions, and some types of fires there also send black carbon, or soot, into the Arctic, which fuels sea ice melt.

The big picture: Eurasia as a whole, and Siberia in particular, has been warming at some of the fastest rates on Earth, with ripple effects extending throughout the landscape.

  • Wildfires have been observed that smolder under the surface of peat-rich soil throughout the winter, only to reemerge in the spring. Such blazes are known as "zombie fires."
  • Already this spring, several large agricultural blazes have been spotted via satellite in parts of Siberia.
  • At the same time that blazes have grown more severe, firefighting resources have dwindled, even before the Ukraine conflict, Amber Soja, a research scientist at NASA Langley Research Center, told Axios via email.

Between the lines: Russian firefighting resources could hit a new low this summer, since many troops and equipment directed toward Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine originated in Russia's Eastern Military District, located in Siberia and the Far East.

  • Military aircraft and personnel, plus separate assets from the Air Forest Protection Service and local residents, typically make up firefighting crews in this region, and even without a war going on, resources are often stretched thin.
  • "If the general population of ‘men’ and firefighters are gone," Soja said, it means resources to fight fires "would be severely limited."

The intrigue: Jessica McCarty, a climate researcher at the Miami University of Ohio, says the war will worsen already amplified wildfire conditions in Siberia.

  • "Because the largest fires often need military aircraft to spot and verify the satellite or community reports, [and to] support and fight in Siberia, it is questionable that this capacity will even be available during the summer if the war continues," she told Axios in an email.
  • "So, either there will be more fires ... or these aircraft and personnel will be taken away from the western front and brought to Siberia." 

Context: A rapidly warming climate has primed this part of the world for seeing more and larger fires that start earlier and last longer into the season and burn in ecosystems previously thought to be less fire prone.

  • In 2020, for example, Siberia set its hottest temperature on record as well as an all-time Arctic record, at 100.4°F in Verkhoyansk, about 3,000 miles from Moscow.
  • "A warmer and drier climate is shifting boreal and subarctic peatlands from acting somewhat as firebreaks to fire propagators," Mike Waddington, a climate researcher at McMaster University in Canada, told Axios via email.
  • That ushers in a positive climate feedback, Waddington said. "With drying fires are burning into northern peat deposits and releasing old carbon, further amplifying atmospheric carbon dioxide levels," he said. "It’s a climate change double whammy!"

Meanwhile, U.S. and European sanctions mean Western scientists cannot collaborate with their Russian colleagues to monitor and study wildfires this year, and instead will have to make do with satellite data. This has limitations, however, particularly when it comes to confirming actual fire ignitions.

What we're watching: Siberian wildfires typically overlap with the warmest and driest parts of the vast tundra, and that will be the case again this summer, Mark Parrington, who monitors fire emissions for Europe's Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, told Axios.

  • "The climate anomalies point to continuing increased fires risk across eastern Siberia," he said.
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