Siberia. A land that, during the 20th Century, typically remained locked in ice well into early June. A land where a typical April was still more cold and harshly frozen than the rest of the world in winter.
But, over recent years, Siberia has been experiencing earlier and earlier thaws as average temperatures for the region jumped by about .4 degrees Celsius each decade. As the land’s permafrost began to draw back, it unlocked billions of tons of a peat-like under-layer. Organic material sequestered over hundreds of thousands of years of freezing conditions.
In moist areas, this carbon-rich layer produced methane gas as it thawed. In dry areas, its moisture steadily leeched out, creating a zone of highly combustible material beneath Siberia’s grasslands and forests.
By the mid-2000s enough of these flammable zones had been liberated to result in an increasingly severe fire hazard for much of Russian Siberia. At that time, a series of rather dangerous and intense fire seasons began to set up from late May to early June. Seasons that raged throughout summer and, in some years, produced clouds of smoke that blanketed large sections of the Northern Hemisphere.
2014 Fire Season Starts Far Too Soon
This year, the situation is markedly worse. A persistent high amplitude ridge in the Jet Stream has funneled heat up from China and Central Asia on into Siberia all throughout late winter and into early spring. The result was summer-like temperatures for a large section of Siberia during late March and into early April. This abnormal warmth set off an early thaw for large sections of Siberia and with that thaw has come an intense, far too soon, ignition to fire season.
To the west, Russia may well be embroiled by the conflict in the Ukraine. But the real battle is likely to be with heat and fire. And it is a battle already joined a month and a half earlier than expected. For by April 1, more than 2,000 hectares had erupted into wildfires. By April 9, more than 61 fires and 18,300 hectares were involved before firefighters contained them.
The blazes by April 15 had re-emerged in more violent form on the outer edges of Siberia — in the southern Yakutia region of Russia and in the Amur region, which experienced both epic floods and fires last year. The massive burn scars in these zones and huge plumes of smoke are now plainly visible in MODIS satellite imagery below.
(Large fires and burn scars in the Amur region of Russia on April 15 of 2014. In the above NASA satellite shot, we can see burn scars ranging from 5-15 miles in length just north and east of the Amur River. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)
These various fires are now quite extensive, a single region featuring burn zones that likely cover an area more widespread than all the fires of a week before. The blackened scar of the largest fire here appears to blanket a zone of about 55 square miles, a region the size of a large city, or a single fire that alone burned through another 14,000 hectares. Visible estimates of the size of fires in the region depicted above are around 20,000 hectares, enough to more than double the area burned last week, bringing the incomplete total to around 38,000 hectares.
Russian reports, so far, haven’t confirmed the extent of these blazes, but when combined with totals from last week’s outbreak, they appear to be about twice as widespread as fires during the early and epic season of 2012 which, by April 15 had seen about 19,000 hectares burn.
As of early April, the blazes were enough to have drawn the emergency response of a small army of fire fighters. And by April 9, about 500 firefighters, scores of vehicles and multiple aircraft were engaged. But this early firefighting force is likely to seem small compared to the numbers that will be needed to combat infernos as the already anomalously warm and dry season continues to progress.