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Devastating Fires in the Arctic Circle

Devastating fires in the Arctic.

Unusual and prolonged heat in Siberia is causing devastating fires in the Arctic for the second year in a row, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).


July 29, 2020.- 

"Some parts of Siberia have again exceeded 30 degrees Celsius this week, a temperature higher than in many parts of Florida, United States", spokeswoman Claire Nullis said in a virtual conference from Geneva. WMO has also received reports of a rapid decline in sea ice along the Russian coast.


Temperatures in Siberia have been more than 5° C above average from January to June, and in June up to 10 ° C above average. The Russian city of Verkhoyansk recorded a temperature of 38° C on June 20, while temperatures in some parts of Siberia again reached 30° C the week which began on July 19.

The spokeswoman explained that this prolonged heat is the result of the blockade exerted by a front on the Arctic, added to the persistent northward drift of the jet stream, which brings warmer air to the region. "However, such extreme heat would have been almost impossible without the influence of climate change caused by man, according to analysis by a team of climatologists" Nullis said.

The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the world average, impacting local populations and ecosystems, with global repercussions. “What happens in the Arctic does not just stay in the Arctic. The poles influence the climate and climatic conditions in lower latitudes, where hundreds of millions of people live”, the spokeswoman explained.

Fires seen from space

Satellite images have shown the extent of the area devastated by the massive fires for the second consecutive year in the Arctic Circle.

“They are dramatic images. The most active wildfire today is less than five miles from the Arctic Ocean. This should not be happening and reinforces the need for urgent climate action, as well as a greater commitment to the Paris Agreement”, said the spokeswoman. 

Satellite image of fires in Siberia.
 On July 22, there were 188 probable fire points in Siberia. Total carbon emissions from fires, since January, are the highest in the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service's 18-year data record, which observes the fire activity and resulting pollution to assess its impact on the atmosphere.

“The summer of 2019 was unusual in terms of fire activity in high latitudes and this 2020 seems to be evolving in a similar way. This suggests that we could see a lot of fires in the Arctic in the coming weeks, especially since the boreal wildfire season peaks in July and August generally”, warned a statement from the Mark Parrington Monitoring Service.

The fires have been particularly intense in the Sakha Republic of Russia (Yakutia) and the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug in extreme northeast Siberia, which have experienced much warmer than usual conditions in recent months. Russian authorities have also stated that there is an extreme risk of fires throughout the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug, Yugra, which is located in western Siberia.

Wide Range of Contaminants 

Wildfire smoke gives off a wide range of pollutants including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds, and solid particulate matter from aerosols.

Arctic wildfires emitted the equivalent of 56 megatons of carbon dioxide last June, compared to 53 megatons in June 2019. Carbon monoxide levels in northeast Siberia were abnormally high in the fire-affected region. 

“Fires release carbon and also reduce the ability of forests to capture it for years. It is a vicious circle”, said the expert, answering questions about the implications of fires on climate change.

Arctic: unprecedented melting of sea ice  

The WMO reported that, according to US experts, the Siberian heat wave last spring accelerated the retreat of ice along the Russian Arctic coast, particularly since the end of June, reducing the extent of sea ice in the Laptev and Barents seas. By contrast, the other areas of the Arctic seas appear to be close to the 1981 to 2010 recorded average for this time of year.

Generally, most of the thaw occurs between July and September, when the minimum annual sea ice extent occurs. So far, the lowest record was in September 2012.

All WMO data sets coincide with a long-term downward trend in Arctic sea ice. This is believed to affect weather patterns in other parts of the world, and it is being investigated whether it is leading to a weaker jet stream, a phenomenon associated with blocking patterns like those that affected Siberia this year.

Thanks to a phenomenon known as “teleconnections”, Pole changes are observed in climatic events in other latitudes, including El NiƱo, where cold, dry air reaches places with warmer and more humid conditions.

Claire Nullis highlighted a new research published in the journal Nature Climate Change, which points to irreversible threats to the Arctic ecosystem. "Polar bears, which as we all know are a symbol of climate change, could be almost extinct by the end of the century," she said.