Arctic Heat Wave Re-Intensifies Over Central Siberia Setting off Rash of Tundra Fires

Siberian Fires July 23

Large fires break out over Siberia during renewed Arctic heat wave.

(Image source: NASA)




Over the past week, temperatures have been building throughout Central Siberia. A broad swath of heat pushed thermometers into the upper 70s to upper 80s (with isolated spots showing 90+ degree readings, Fahrenheit) in a broad region stretching from Siberia’s forests all the way to the Arctic Coast. These heatwave conditions set off more than a score of large fires that raged through both Arctic forest and across broad areas of tundra. The largest of these fires covered areas up to 1000 square miles and numerous smoke plumes were visible from satellite, some of which stretched more than 800 miles in length. A larger pall of smoke from this region covered areas of North-Central Russia, the Arctic Coast and sections of Europe more than 2,000 miles away.

You can view these fires and related smoke plumes in the NASA Aqua Satellite image provided by Lance-Modis above.

The scorching Arctic heat wave and massive burning has been set off, once again, by a high amplitude northward bulge in the polar Jet Stream and related ‘heat dome’ high pressure system resting just beneath the bulge. As you can see in the below image, provided by the California Regional Weather Service, this particular heat bulge extends past the 80 degree North Latitude line, nearly reaching the North Pole. This extraordinary upward sweep in the Jet has completely compromised the polar vortex, allowing hot air to build far north and pass deep into the Arctic Ocean environs.

jetstream_northern July 23

(Image source: California Regional Weather Service)

Arctic coastal temperatures usually average less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit at this time of year, but the region beneath this Arctic heat dome has averaged about 15-20 degrees hotter over the past week. Further south, where the tundra fields and arboreal forests of Siberia lay, temperatures have been even warmer with highs stretching into the middle and upper 80s and even lower 90s in some isolated locations. The added heat and the occasional thunderstorm that will typically form under such highly unusual Arctic conditions enhances the chance of wildfires. Now, after a week of such conditions, more than a score of large fires rage.

Siberian Heatwave July 23

Tuesday daytime temperatures for Siberia. Red indicates temperatures ranging from 77-86 degrees Fahrenheit. Note the broad swath of these temperatures riding up from Russia all the way to the Arctic coastline. These measures represent daytime temperatures at the point recorded and do not necessarily record daily maximum temperatures for a given location.

(Image source: Arctic Weather Maps)

Unfortunately, forecasts call for hot conditions to persist over this region of the Arctic at least until Saturday. Then, the heat dome and related Jet Stream bulge is predicted to slowly shift toward Europe, bringing heat, dryness and related risk of wildfires along with it.

This particular heat wave is the most recent of many to plague the Arctic during 2013. Large Arctic regions from Siberia, to Europe, to Canada to Alaska experienced periods of extreme heat where temperatures rose 10, 15, 20 degrees or more (Fahrenheit) above average. The added heat and evaporation in one region appeared to aid in the formation of record floods in another with both Europe and Canada experiencing some of their worst floods on record.

Strange changes to the Jet Stream and the water cycle driving these extreme events are directly related to human-caused global warming. In the first instance, human-caused warming has set off a series of events that have caused a major erosion of Northern Hemisphere sea ice. Since 1979, more about 50% of sea ice extent and 80% of sea ice volume has been lost. Since the 1900s, more than 60% of sea ice extent has melted away. The sea ice, which tends to lock cold air in the Arctic, is thus dramatically weakened. The result is that more warm air tends to pool in the Arctic. As this happens, the temperature difference between the North Pole and temperate regions lessens. This loss of differential causes the Jet Stream to slow down. As the Jet Stream slows, it tends to move more like a lazy river, creating big loops, large high amplitude waves and numerous cut off flows. The net result is that weather systems move more slowly, causing weather patterns to persist over longer periods.

The high amplitude waves that have tended to form in the Jet Stream also result in warmer air being transported toward the North Polar region. In the case of the current Siberian heatwave and wildfires, this is exactly what is happening. What we have seen, this summer, is a ring of very hot conditions developing in the higher Latitude regions from about 60 degrees North to about 80 degrees North. This is the zone where much of the extreme Arctic heating has emerged.

This second factor, added atmospheric heat, causes greater evaporation to occur, especially in regions where the heat is most intense. On average, the global hydrological cycle, which is the net rate at which water evaporates and then comes back to the Earth in some form of precipitation, increases its intensity by 8% for each degree Celsius of warming. Currently, average global temperatures are about .8 degrees Celsius hotter than the 1880s average. So the rate at which water evaporates and the rate at which it falls from the skies as rain and snow has increased by more than 6%. In the hot regions under the Jet Stream bulges and related heat dome high pressure systems this means far more intense soil drying and risk of wildfires. In the wet regions of cut off lows and down-slopes in the polar Jet Stream this means more intense rainfall events.

In essence, this is how human caused global warming is helping to drive extreme weather events now. And the current Siberian heatwave and related wildfires is just one case in point.



California Regional Weather Service

Arctic Weather Maps

The Arctic Heat Wave, Heat Domes, and a Mangled Jet Stream

Leave a comment


  1. Steve

     /  July 23, 2013

    When I see articles like this, the question always pops in my head, “When are we going to start seeing the effects of methane have an impact and why haven’t we seen it yet?” Is it possible that’s why it has warmed more in these regions than elsewhere? I read your post a week ago about a 150 kilometer methane plume. I remember back in 2011 when a half mile plume was extraordinary.


    • We’re having some methane feedback in the Arctic and it’s a part of polar amplification. That said, it is important to note that this feedback is not a runaway feedback at this time. In total, we’re probably seeing about a 10-15 megaton methane emission from the Arctic each year (comparing to a 40 megaton global emission, including humans). The Arctic emission could double or even triple over the coming years and decades. And this is a pretty serious amplifying feedback. To get a runaway, though, we’d need about 500 MT to 1 GT annual average emission. And we’re not seeing that yet (hope to never see it).

      NASA’s CARVE study will likely provide more detail. But my opinion is that the methane feedback and other global responses to human emissions will be enough to at least double the human forcing over long periods of time (perhaps more than double, as the human forcing is so fast). So it’s certainly trouble worth keeping an eye on.

      Loss of albedo and related greenhouse gas feedback in the Arctic is having the predicted amplifying effect. In addition, we’re in a period when the ocean gyres and atmospheric circulation are transferring more heat to the Arctic. This phase should last for another 5, 10, or 15 years. When it switches back, overall atmospheric warming will intensify and polar amplification may slow down a little.

      So in answer to your question, we’re already seeing the first impacts of increased polar methane release. But these are the early, outlier events. And, yes, the extra methane does have a local warming effect on the Arctic environment.


  2. Steve

     /  July 23, 2013

    Thank you so much for answering my questions to the detail that you do. Last question for the day. By studying the graphs from previous articles, it appears that the temperatures really started to take off after the annual carbon output levels slightly more than doubled between 1960-1980 from 8-16 gigatons. We are now near that point with methane which is 100 times more effective at trapping heat. It looks like methane has almost tripled since the start of the industrial age from 700-1975. I’m comparing what’s in atmosphere compared to annual production, so that also creates a problem in my thinking. I know its different because methane is coming up from the ocean rather then carbon being absorbed by those same waters, so I could be way out in left field on this one.

    Those random thoughts lead to my one question: Do we have any idea of earths absorbality in regards to methane?


    • All right, let’s start with global methane.

      At the start of the industrial revolution, global methane levels were 700 parts per billion. Now, global methane levels are about 1825 parts per billion. So the increase is slightly more than x2.5.

      Now, the Arctic is seeing local methane levels between 1890 and 1950 or more ppb. As discussed before, this is due to local methane emissions both from permafrost and from the sea bed.

      There is no net absorption of methane in the Earth system. Instead, methane breaks down in the atmosphere over the course of about 25 to 150 years. The methane, CH4, reacts with oxygen, O2, to become CO2 and hydrogen. So the methane has a short lifetime in the atmosphere but it adds marginally to the net volume of CO2 in the atmosphere as it denatures.

      Were humans to stop methane emissions, it’s likely that methane levels would drop for some time due to the fact that methane reacts so rapidly. But added heat in the Arctic may cause methane releases that make up this amount.

      In total, non CO2 gasses, including methane, represent about 1/4 the current forcing of CO2. The current rate of increase in both CO2 and methane forcing is enough to push warming, on average, by about .2 to .4 degrees Celsius per decade through the 2040s. Some decades may show little or no warming (due to natural variability) and some may show warming at rates of .4 degrees Celsius or more as natural variability swings toward hot.

      If BAU emissions continue and if Arctic methane response grows, this rate of warming will also likely increase unless ice sheet melt speeds up enough to present a major negative feedback.

      Methane is important now in that it adds about 20% to the warming provided by CO2. And Arctic Methane is worth watching because, by itself, it could result in 1.5 degrees worth of warming or more all by itself by the end of this Century.

      This may not sound like much, but it’s a huge heating factor.

      One last point… It appears we may be able to slide by emitting around 4 to 6 or so gigatons of carbon each year without markedly increasing the human forcing. However, eventually the carbon stocks in the ocean fill up and begin releasing into the atmosphere. So, eventually, almost all carbon emissions need to stop if we’re to have much hope of getting long-term warming under control.

      In addition, we can reasonably assume, at this point, that some environmental feedbacks are already in play that will extend and amplify the human warming for some time, even if all emissions cease today.


  3. Steve

     /  July 24, 2013

    Thank you! After reading your post and doing some more math that I should have done earlier it makes sense. I now understand why methane is not causing too much of a concern.


  4. Steve

     /  July 24, 2013

    That’s good. At least we can enjoy the next 2 and 1/2 weeks before the jet stream or lack thereof does us in! 🙂


    • Oh, I don’t know… 18 days is a bit of a stretch. I’m thinking about ten ;).

      Seriously, though. We’re in for weird and more dangerous weather for some time now. I honestly wish we had been more on our toes RE sustainability and CO2 reduction back in the 80s when we could have avoided much of this trouble. Now, we’re in for some tough consequences.

      Seeing a large methane pulse in the region of our heatwave, at the moment. Not happy about that. Not at all…


  5. Robert –
    From an article about the Churchill railway and it’s problems with melting permafrost :
    ” “Peter Kershaw, adjunct professor in the earth sciences department at the University of Alberta, who was in Churchill recently on a research project, agrees. “It’s a big concern and so far not well-quantified,” said Kershaw, of greenhouse-gas emissions from thawing peat. “That organic material is being made available for decomposition. It’s out of the freezer and sitting on the counter.”

    One Kershaw study showed permafrost 15 metres deep in the Hudson Bay Lowlands has warmed by half a degree, from -0.9 degrees Celsius in the mid-1970s, to -0.45 degrees today. That half-degree warming penetrating so deeply into the ground is significant, he said.”


    • That stuff is going to get scorched. We’re in for a big methane pulse over the next few centuries and it’s probably not going to be pretty.


  6. Ice free Arctic in two years heralds methane catastrophe – scientist
    A new paper in the journal Nature argues that the release of a 50 Gigatonne (Gt) methane pulse from thawing Arctic permafrost could destabilise the climate system and trigger costs as high as the value of the entire world’s GDP. The East Siberian Arctic Shelf’s (ESAS) reservoir of methane gas hydrates could be released slowly over 50 years or “catastrophically fast” in a matter of decades – if not even one decade – the researchers said.


    • Thanks for the article. Sharakova again?

      A gigaton of methane release per year would be catastrophically fast. 50 gigatons in a few years would be a disaster beyond anything in human memory.


    • Just to let you know…

      I’ve included your very valuable and helpful additions in my most recent blog on the subject. So thank you for contributing.

      I believe that the best course of action is to heed Wadhams even if a 50 gigaton release over the course of the next few decades is currently looking like a low probability event.

      The reason is that conditions are in flux and that the human forcing is quite large. We have a number of researchers on the ground looking at methane now. And second sources to Wadhams will be very useful. We don’t have them yet.

      Lastly, though there is paleoclimate evidence of rapid ice sheet response, we don’t have quite so clear evidence of rapid methane response. The fastest being on the 1,000 to 10,000 year time-scale. This might be due to the fact that our measures aren’t as accurate as they could be.

      So, for my part, I’m keeping this in the low risk category until new, direct evidence arises. This is not to say that we should ignore Wadhams. In fact, a rapid response now is the best course of action, especially when it involves a very prudent and called for mitigation and a determination of a number of effective emergency responses (even geoengineering) should the very worst events emerge.

      At this point, climate change and not competition from other nations is the largest threat to us all. Effective response will require cooperation and innovation never seen before.


  7. Steve

     /  July 24, 2013

    So what kind of ice level would you need to see at the end of August to be greatly concerned about Wadhams prediction of ice loss by 2015 being possible? Has Wadhams made extreme predictions that failed to materialize before?


    • Any ice free Arctic conditions are likely to enhance the rate at which methane releases. Wadhams is predicting end summer ice free condition by 2015. This is certainly possible. My own risk assessments show a high potential for ice free conditions by or before 2020 with potentially as high as a 60% change by 2017. It’s worth noting that such an event is still possible but not likely this year (5%).

      My opinion is that we don’t have enough evidence yet to prove Wadhams true or false on methane release. His particular area of expertise is sea ice and I don’t believe that his understanding of methane dynamics is entirely related. That said, he raises very valid concerns that should not be ignored.

      We are in desperate need of more information to clarify what is a dangerous situation. My view is that risks for a runaway are still low (10-20 percent). But do not take this to mean we should not be worried!! If the doctor told you you had cancer and there was a 10-20% chance you would die, how worried would you be? This is what we’re dealing with when it comes to methane. The outcomes are terrible so even a relatively low risk should be taken very, very seriously.

      In my view both more understanding of how fast methane will respond to warming and a much more rapid human response to global warming are both necessary.


    • Steve-
      3 points to bare in mind,
      A. East Siberia is the largest continental shelf on Earth
      B. Much of is no deeper than 20 meters.
      C. The sea floor is made from Yedoma permafrost , and on land it is melting 10 times faster than we first thought.


      • Pertinent to these points:

        “The research group, which was led by Stockholm University, has calculated that the coastal Yedoma erosion currently destabilises around 44 megatonnes of the ice age carbon per year – ten times as much as previously thought – and that about two thirds of this end up as CO2 in the atmosphere, translating to annual CO2 emissions of about 0.165 gigatonnes*.”

        So the current rate of destabilization contributes about 13 megatons to Arctic methane emission. This is a substantial and damaging feedback. But to reach the runaway Wadhams mentions, we need to hit a total Arctic feedback of around 500 megatons methane per year.

        So something to think about.

        What we need is a survey of the entire Arctic done over many years to not just get the rate of emission but also the rate of increase.


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