DATE: August 7, 2020
SNIP: Abnormally warm temperatures have spawned an intense fire season in eastern Siberia this summer. Satellite data show that fires have been more abundant, more widespread, and produced more carbon emissions than recent seasons.
The area shown in the time-lapse sequence above includes the Sakha Republic, one of the most active fire regions in Siberia this summer. The images show smoke plumes billowing from July 30 to August 6, 2020, as observed by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on NASA/NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. Strong winds occasionally carried the plumes as far as Alaska in late July. As of August 6, approximately 19 fires were burning in the province.
“After the Arctic fires in 2019, the activity in 2020 was not so surprising through June,” said Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. “What has been surprising is the rapid increase in the scale and intensity of the fires through July, largely driven by a large cluster of active fires in the northern Sakha Republic.”
Estimates show that around half of the fires in Arctic Russia this year are burning through areas with peat soil—decomposed organic matter that is a large natural carbon source. Warm temperatures (such as the record-breaking heatwave in June) can thaw and dry frozen peatlands, making them highly flammable. Peat fires can burn longer than forest fires and release vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
Parrington noted that fires in Arctic Russia released more carbon dioxide (CO2) in June and July 2020 alone than in any complete fire season since 2003 (when data collection began). That estimate is based on data compiled by CAMS, which incorporates data from NASA’s MODIS active fire products.
Fires in these regions are not just releasing recent surface peat carbon, but stores that have taken 15,000 years to the accumulate, said Peteet. They also release methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.