Siberian heatwave is a ‘warning cry’ from the Arctic, climate scientists say

Smoke rises from wildfires near Berezovka River in Russia in this June 23, 2020 color infrared image supplied by Maxar Technologies. Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies via REUTERS

Pine trees are bursting into flames. Boggy peatlands are tinderbox dry. And towns in northern Russia are sweltering under conditions more typical of the tropics.

Reports of record-breaking Arctic heat – registered at more than 100 Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) in the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk on June 20 – are still being verified by the World Meteorological Organization. But even without that confirmation, experts at the global weather agency are worried by satellite images showing that much of the Russian Arctic is in the red.

That extreme heat is fanning the unusual extent of wildfires across the remote, boreal forest and tundra that blankets northern Russia. Those blazes have in turn ignited normally waterlogged peatlands.

Scientists fear the blazes are early signs of drier conditions to come, with more frequent wildfires releasing stores of carbon from peatland and forests that will increase the amount of planet-warming greenhouse gases in the air.

Satellite records for the region starting in 2003 suggest there has been a dramatic jump in emissions from Arctic fires during just the last two summers, with the combined emissions released in June 2019 and June 2020 greater than during all of the June months in 2003-2018 put together, Smith said.

Atmospheric records dating back more than a century show Arctic air temperatures also reaching new highs in recent years. That leads Smith to believe the scale of the fires could be unprecedented as well.

“What we’re seeing happening right now is the consequence of the past” industrial emissions, Smith says. “What will happen in 40 years’ time is already locked in. We can’t do anything about that. That’s why we should be concerned; it can only get worse.”

Although peatland covers only 3% of the Earth’s land surface, those deposits contain twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests together.

Scientists have known climate change is causing the Arctic to warm twice as quickly as the rest of the world, and the Siberian heatwave, which began in May, is typical of that trend.

And as temperatures warm, and polar snow and ice melt, more Arctic area is left darker and absorbs heat faster, which contributes to more warming. The Arctic sea ice has lost 70% of its summer volume since the 1970s, with the area also shrinking to the point that last year saw one of the lowest ice covers on record.