The fires in the Amazon have set off alarms around the world--and with good reason. But half a planet away, Eastern Siberia is also on fire, as are large parts of the Arctic Circle. The “unprecedented” Siberian blazes began in June after temperatures peaked at 8-10°C warmer than the average from 1981 to 2010. The heat dried out the landscape, producing tinder for natural forest fires that were probably ignited by lightning, The Economist explained.
But it is what is happening below ground that most worries ecologists and climate scientists, according to the magazine. Many of the Siberian and Alaskan fires are burning carbon-dense peat soils, which would normally be waterlogged. Peat fires produce much more carbon dioxide and methane from the combustion of carbon that has been locked in the ground for hundreds or thousands of years. Burning soil therefore eliminates important carbon sinks that cannot be replaced on any useful timescale.
This, in turn, generates feedback loops that are not accounted for in the climate projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). For example, The New York Times’ Kendra Pierre-Louis explained, the Arctic fires exacerbate global warming because of the soot produced by burning peat. When the soot settles on nearby glaciers, the ice absorbs the sun’s energy instead of reflecting it, speeding up the melting of the glacier.
The latest research indicates that Arctic permafrost is much richer in carbon than scientists believed. Researchers now suspect that for every one degree Celsius rise in Earth’s average temperature, permafrost may release the equivalent of four to six years’ worth of coal, oil, and natural gas emissions—double to triple what scientists thought a few years ago, according to a September National Geographic article by Craig Welch.
And the rate of temperature increase in the Arctic is startling. Welch toured part of Siberia with ecologist Sergey Zimov, who has been studying the Arctic for decades. He and his son Nikita run the Northeast Science Station in Cherskiy. “Three years ago, the temperature in the ground above our permafrost was minus 3 degrees Celsius [27 degrees Fahrenheit],” Sergey Zimov said. “Then it was minus 2. Then it was minus one. This year, the temperature was plus 2 degrees.”
As a result, Arctic permafrost isn’t thawing gradually, as scientists once predicted. Geologically speaking, it’s thawing almost overnight.
“What is scary about the Arctic fires is that they are driven by climate change, and as such, there’s very little you can do,” said Thomas Smith, who studies wildfires at the London School of Economics. “You can’t raise the water table for an area the scale of northern Alaska or Siberia,” he told The Economist.
Smoke from the wildfires has engulfed hundreds of villages in Siberia—and spread as far as Seattle and Vancouver, The Wall Street Journal’s Georgi Kantchev reported. Meantime, large-scale flooding, due mostly to heavy rain, has added to Russians’ misery. The twin threats are “injecting fresh urgency into rethinking the country’s usually skeptical stance toward the dangers posed by climate change.”
Every Friday for more than 20 weeks, 25-year-old violinist Arshak Makichyan stood at Moscow’s central Pushkin Square holding a placard warning of the dangers of global warming. Social media dubbed him the city’s only climate protester. But suddenly, the violinist is not so lonely: More than 1.2 million people have signed a petition for authorities to do more to counter the environmental problems in Siberia.
President Vladimir Putin is concerned, too. He warns that Russia is being hit hard, with temperatures in the country rising 2½ times as fast as the global average. “We take this matter very seriously,” he said.
When will Congress and the White House catch up to Putin? Americans need to sound the alarm and push our elected officials into motion so we can counter this threat before it’s too late. The quickest remedy? Putting an honest price on carbon dioxide.