Climate Action

Wildfires are raging in Russia: How can we reduce the threat?

a fire truck drives across a forest burnt by wildfire towards to the sattelment of Zapasnoye in Chelyabinsk Region, Russia

Russia lost an area of forest larger than Switzerland from 2011 - 2013 due to wildfires. Image: REUTERS/Alexey Malgavko

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • A heatwave in Siberia has seen record temperatures that have fueled wildfires.
  • Unlike wildfires at lower latitudes, Arctic fires are a natural part of the system and are often left to burn out.
  • Climate change increases the likelihood of wildfires, which in turn release emissions that will exacerbate climate change.
  • Collaboration between Indigenous Arctic communities to share knowledge on how to manage wildfires is essential in reducing the threat to people and the planet.

The city of Yakutsk, capital of Russia’s northeastern Yakutia region, has long been known as the coldest city on Earth.

In winter, temperatures plummet to -40C, and it’s the only city to be built on permafrost.

In July, temperatures are usually around 20C. But this year, record-breaking summer temperatures saw the mercury hit 35C in Yakutsk - in a heatwave that has fuelled wildfires in Siberia’s coniferous taiga forests.

smoke seen over Russia on a NASA satellite image
A satellite image from NASA’s Earth Observatory shows extent of the smoke. Image: NASA Earth Observatory

Unlike wildfires that burn at lower latitudes, such as in California, which are often started by humans, Arctic wildfires are mostly started by lightning strikes. They are normally left to burn out unless they threaten human settlements. But Russian army planes have been sent to fight the fires that have raged across 800,000 hectares of forest in recent weeks.

Russia has the biggest area of tree cover in the world - at 882 million hectares. But it lost an area larger than Switzerland each year between 2011 and 2013 - mostly due to fires - according to the World Resources Institute. And the fires have only become more intense in the years since.

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this diagram shows the extent of fire around the Arctic
Where fire risk is greatest around the Arctic. Image: Biogeosciences

A growing number of studies have shown that climate change increases the likelihood of forest fires because it creates the weather conditions that favour them - hotter, longer summers which means trees drying out and permafrost thawing.

In recent years, Siberia’s annual fires - a natural part of the taiga ecosystem - have been more frequent and ferocious, burning larger areas. And the risk will only increase, scientists say, as lightning strikes become more common.

The climate change feedback loop

In May, scientists warned the warming Arctic tundra would make it harder to tackle climate change, as the thawing permafrost and wildfires release greenhouse gases not taken into account in global emissions agreements.

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The thawing releases carbon dioxide and methane from the once-frozen soil, threatening to create a feedback loop, which would contribute to yet more warming of the atmosphere.

The permafrost study found 2019’s wildfires in Russia’s Arctic regions released the highest emissions since 2003 - and last year it was 35% more.

Collaborating to protect the Arctic

More research is needed to predict and understand wildfires in the Arctic - and pan-Arctic collaboration and cooperation is vital to address the threat to human lives, ecosystems and climate change, say climate scientists.

“To prepare for these 21st century changes to the Arctic fire regime, evidence-based fire monitoring and management - including prevention strategies - must incorporate Indigenous and local knowledge in the Arctic,” write scientists in the journal Biogeosciences.

Collaboration is happening. Russia took over chairmanship of the Arctic Council this year, a position it will hold until 2023, with the priority of achieving ‘responsible governance for a sustainable Arctic’.

Climate change issues were high on the agenda when the Council met for its biennial meeting in Iceland in May, with delegates from Indigenous communities, as well as Russia, the US, Canada and Scandinavian nations.

The Circumpolar Wildland Fire Project was set up by the Council’s Emergency Preparedness, Prevention and Response working group last year to coordinate training and the response to fires in the Arctic region, and promote international cooperation and contracting of resources across State boundaries.

And Russia is launching a permafrost monitoring system that will give early-warnings of degradation and potential consequences.

Restoring forests to combat climate change

Planting trees to restore the Arctic taiga forests can help to mitigate climate change to reduce the threat of wildfires - but it’s not enough on its own to absorb the emissions from fossil fuels.

Young environmentalist Marianna Muntianu, a UN Young Champion of the Earth was motivated to plant trees after witnessing the damage caused by wildfires in 2010 in her home region of Kostroma. She now runs the Russian Climate Fund and aims to plant a billion trees by 2030.

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The World Economic Forum’s 1t.org aims to conserve, restore and grow a trillion trees before the end of this decade, partly to reforest areas of woodland destroyed by wildfires.

The initiative aims to enable the kind of partnerships that will lead to a reduction in wildfires and more sustainable forests for future generations.

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