Hundreds of wildfires are torching huge swaths of Siberia after an unusually hot and dry summer left forests primed to burn.
The blazes, likely ignited by lightning and strengthened by strong winds, have already burned more than 15,000 square miles, an area larger than the state of Maryland. Though Siberia is sparsely populated — it’s home to just a quarter of Russia’s population — these blazes are alarmingly close to cities and are already impacting people’s health.
Scientists at the Krasnoyarsk Science Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences mapped out the fires and found that their plumes have shrouded a massive area:
Residents of Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city, located in southern Siberia, suffered from the poor air quality this week, which led to hacking coughs, stinging eyes, and hospital visits. The city of Ulan-Ude was also clouded by smoke. Dirty air stemming from blazes is often the deadliest health effect of wildfires, and the impacts can linger for years.
And the smoke is no longer contained to Russia. NOAA satellites have observed that the massive plumes have moved east and into North America.
Though wildfires are a regular event in Siberian forests, the scale of the current infernos is unusual. For some environmentalists, the biggest concern is that the soot from the fires can deposit on Arctic ice and speed up its melt rate. That in turn can cause major disruption to local ecosystems. And if that ice is on land, it can run into the ocean and contribute to sea level rise.
“The catastrophe in Siberia is not a catastrophe in Russia, it is a global ecological catastrophe,” Anton Beneslavsky, a Greenpeace Russia fire expert and volunteer firefighter, told Vice News.
The Russian government declared an emergency and mobilized the military to contain the fires. Airplanes and helicopters are working to constrain the flames but can do little to limit the smoke. Many of the fires are in remote areas that are difficult to reach.
On Wednesday, President Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin to offer US assistance in fighting the fires.
Fires are not unusual in Siberian forests, but the concern about this year’s blazes is their scale and their proximity to population centers. Siberia also saw massive fires last year, the year before, and the year before that. The most recent fires were preceded by temperatures upward of 14 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the long-term average for the area. That fits within the pattern of what scientists expect as the global climate changes. As average temperatures rise, heat waves are becoming longer, more frequent, and more intense.