Several large Siberian wildfires reported in the summer of 2020, believed to have been extinguished by autumn rain and snow showers, illustrate a disturbing and ecologically damaging phenomenon now affecting remote parts of north-eastern Siberia.
Significantly, the wildfires reappear each year in the same location, and despite the efforts of local fire fighters appear to have re-emerged over the winter months of late 2020. It is now clear that these conflagrations can re-establish themselves even after the harshest of Russian winter conditions.
Due to their apparent ability to resurrect themselves, they have been christened “Zombie Fires”, and the huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) they generate as they sweep over the landscape help to increase the effects of the climate change emergency engulfing Planet Earth. What was believed to be a random occurrence is now fast becoming a major problem, one which threatens to overwhelm local communities both directly and indirectly through associated effects of the ever-changing climate.
One of the communities directly affected is the remote town of Chersky, located on the River Kolyma about 1600km northeast of the Sakha Republic’s major city, Yakutsk. I have a special fondness for this settlement, an old supply base for the former Soviet Union’s ice-floe research stations, as I travelled there in July 1992 on a photographic tour of Siberia’s Sakha Republic. The summer wildfires which came extremely close to the town made brief headlines in July 2020, although they were soon forgotten when other natural disasters occurred in more habitable areas.
The local population’s resources, meagre enough in 1992 but having dwindled still further twenty-eight years later, were stretched to the limit by these “regular” wildfires that are now springing up each summer. The comparatively new “Zombie Fires” phenomenon will only serve to make living in such a fragile community increasingly untenable, though more importantly, they are helping to increase the rate of climate change itself.
Background: The Fires That Do Not Die
“Zombie Fires” is a catchy term for a phenomenon that fire and rescue personnel stationed in Alaska and Northern Canada have been aware of for many years, but one which was believed up until recently to be an incredibly rare event. Historically, these conflagrations have been known by other names, including holdover or overwintering fires. The records of such fires stretch back several decades, although they were not extensively studied until recently.
Wildfires are ignited in temperate latitudes due to a wide variety of reasons, many of which involve human activity. These include arson, careless disposal of cigarette butts or campfires, faulty power lines and sparks from malfunctioning electrical equipment. Natural causes usually involve lightning strikes, but volcanic activity has also been known to start wildfires in certain areas. However, these blazes, once extinguished by fire-fighters or after burning themselves out, rarely re-ignite in the same place the following year due to the lack of combustible material.
Wildfires have now begun to erupt much more often in the far north-east of Russia, even in areas that are normally covered by continuous permafrost. Prior to the spate of fires during the last few years, such events have not been seen in the Yakutia region of North-East Siberia for some time now. This is a location which normally receives heavy amounts of autumn rainfall, closely followed by winter snowstorms – not necessarily the kind of place most people would think that wildfires would occur. However, climate change is altering the rules that the natural world appears to play by.
In the summer of 2020, an “Arctic heatwave” sent temperatures soaring to 40°C in some places, with the geographical “Pole of Cold” at Verkhoyansk reaching a “fantastical” 38°C. The local weather service had forecasted that the region would experience “a very strange” July in 2020. The risk of Arctic wildfires to fragile communities in the north-eastern Siberian Arctic soon became a reality, as the isolated settlements of Srednekolymsk and Nizhnekolymsk, on the banks of the Kolyma between Chersky and Zyrjanka, two of the largest towns in the region, were seriously threatened by wildfires last July. Video and photographic footageshowed fires burning extremely close to the settlements located along the lower Kolyma.
The sole power line connecting Chersky was damaged, forcing residents there to use an emergency generator. At one point, the village of Svatay, some 250km west of Chersky, was surrounded by wildfires, which covered the settlement with thick, choking smoke and forcing its 450 residents to fight the blazes with backpack fire extinguishers. Reports from Batagay, a town about 600km north of Yakutsk, spoke of “rainfalls” of ash from local fires.
Other blazes were reported along in the Khangalassky Ulus area along the River Lena, south of the city of Yakutsk. Smoke from these Siberian fires soon became visible from space, caught by the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite, part of the European Union’s Earth Observation Program. The local airline, Polyarniy Aviatsii (Polar Aviation) deployed its fleet of Mil Mi-8 helicopters on round-the-clock operations across the region.
Footage shot in Saydy, located on the Yana River around 80km north of Batagay, in January 2021 showed smoke rising out of the snow, despite temperatures of -50°C. Local resident Ivan Zakharov, who filmed the fire, reported that the fire was burning near the area hit by last summer’s wildfires.
“This area suffered extremely hot and dry weather. It must be either peat on fire here,” Zakharov surmised, “or, as some hunters who noticed these fires suggest, possibly young coal (lignite).”
The smoke is believed to be from fires that ignite in the increasingly longer and hotter summer, that smoulder in the peat layers below the winter snowfall and await the spring thaw. Once the inevitable rise in temperatures arrives and the ground dries out sufficiently, the blazes start again; thus the name, “Zombie Wildfires”.
Analysis: Permafrost No Longer Permanent Thanks to Zombie Fires
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, with surface temperatures in central Siberia being measured up to almost 43°F above the 1981-2010 average in the winter of 2018. Such increases are fuelling the rate of climate change locally and therefore globally, and are caused by various factors, the “Zombie Fires” being a recent manifestation.
The permafrost – the permanently frozen top layer of soil, which varies from a few feet to two or three miles in depth – covers over half of Russia’s total land mass, an area tens of millions of square miles in size. Some one hundred thousand years’ worth of organic matter deposits are held in what effectively is a vast freezer, enormous tracts of peat bog made up of dead plants and animals that cannot completely decompose in the extreme cold. However, as the temperature rises, this allows the decomposition process to begin and accelerate, releasing CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. These “greenhouse gases” warm the Earth still further, causing more decomposition to occur.
The recent increase in temperatures has reduced the amount of snow and ice cover in the far north of Siberia, even though the depth of snow may have increased in certain local areas. For an explanation of what is currently happening in that part of the world, I reached out to Jonathan Overpeck, Collegiate Professor of Environmental Education at the University of Michigan. He explained to me that these wildfires are a clear impact of climate warming.
Stressing that global warming is being amplified in the Arctic by a number of feedbacks, he confirmed that the most obvious was “the increasing amount of solar radiation that can be absorbed by the ocean, land and atmosphere as snow and ice coverage melts away.” If the increased rate of organic matter decomposition and reduction in snow cover were not problems enough, the current surge in the number of wildfires has greatly increased the amount of carbon stored in living trees and plants that is being released into the atmosphere, causing it to become drier and warmer still.
Professor Overpeck explained to me how the rise in temperatures in Siberia is causing the increased number of wildfires.
“This rapid warming is drying out vegetation directly,” he said, “but it’s also causing permafrost to melt, and as that happens in many spots, it allows the surface soils to dry out. This in turn, helps dry out roots and vegetation yet more, and it also can leave organic-rich former permafrost drier and more susceptible to fire; fires that have the potential to keep smouldering all year round.” He painted a bleak picture not only for the northern extremes of Russia, but other parts of the world above the Arctic Circle: “Global warming is literally baking parts of the Arctic, and where there are natural and human ignition sources, this often means more wildfire.”
Overpeck described the Siberian wildfires as being an extreme case of what is happening more broadly around the planet as fossil fuels are burnt. “A warmer atmosphere means an atmosphere that can hold more moisture, and thus often demand more moisture from the land surface. This can dry out the surface-soils and vegetation, just as a garden dries out more on a really hot day. If not watered by rain or otherwise, plants wilt and are more susceptible to death and/or fire.” According to Jonathan Overpeck, the drier conditions are responsible for the unprecedented wildfires north of the Arctic Circle – and those experienced in Australia and the western United States.
Russia’s chief weather specialist Roman Vilfand stated that forests throughout Siberia were on fire due to changes in air circulation and processes that formed anticyclones. He also explained that at high latitudes, the sun does not set during the Arctic summer. Consequently, the ground does not cool down, and instead it is continually heated by clear weather, especially where there is little or no cloud cover.
In the summer of 2018, the father-and-son team of Sergey and Nikita Zimov, scientists tracking climate change at the North-East Science Station at Chersky, on the River Kolyma about 40 miles from the latter’s outfall into the East Siberian Sea, made a surprising discovery. They found that the previous winter’s unusually high amount of snowfall had acted like a huge blanket, insulating the top layer of ground underneath, stopping it from freezing solid.
“Three years ago, the temperature in the ground above our permafrost was -3°C,” Zimov said. “Then it was -2. Then it was -1. This year, the temperature was plus 2 degrees.” In fact, measurements taken at drill sites by the Zimovs over a five-year period showed that the ground temperature had risen by 10°C.
Huge stretches of melted permafrost are now exposed along rivers in the area. Whilst other scientists believe that more data is needed to verify Zimov’s isolated findings, it is not disputed that increased snow cover would help insulate the top layers of ground, preventing them from freezing. Recent studies in Alaska have shown that in some years, this freeze occurs later and for a shorter period, and in some locations, it does not happen at all.
“Zombie Fires” are not the only direct threats to the isolated community of Chersky, as the very foundations of the settlement are threatened by the melting of the permafrost layer. “Foundations” is a misnomer, since when such towns were established back in the days of the Soviet Union, it was impossible to dig deep enough into the permafrost without using vast amounts of explosives. Instead, fires were lit to melt enough ground to drive piles into before it froze up again. The permafrost provided an ideal surface on which to construct buildings, including the ubiquitous apartment blocks colloquially known as Khruschoba (“Khrushchev slums”) which can be found all over Russia.
However, melting of the surface layers threatens structural stability, as I discovered at several settlements in July 1992 when I saw wooden houses with a substantial “lean” to one side, buttressed by large planks of wood to stop them falling down. In Chersky, the school building was abandoned when the ground shifted due to melting, causing walls to crack open. Several Khruschoba have also been vacated due to subsidence in the permafrost below. Snow covered tracks are now unstable in places due to melting below, causing vehicles to fall into holes in the permafrost, and threatens the viability of the “ice road” along the Kolyma, used by trucks to supply the settlement via a week-long drive along the frozen river from Yakutsk.
Outlook: A Bleak Settlement’s Bleak Future
“Zombie Fires” are one of the latest manifestations of climate change. Fires that cannot be extinguished through natural processes and the limited resources available pose a danger not just to local inhabitants, but to the entire planet. Global climate change modelling, together with media coverage of the issue, seems to ignore rapid thawing of the permafrost and the wildfires that have resulted from the increased temperatures north of the Arctic Circle in recent years. The ecological catastrophe currently playing out in Siberia thanks to the zombie fires can, of course, be easily overlooked due to its location. However, with a rate of temperature change twice that in other parts of the world, the Siberian Arctic, as well as northern Canada and Alaska, cannot be overlooked forever, as its influence on global climate is enormous.
Climate change is a global problem and therefore requires a global solution. It is not too late to alter human behaviour: the way we travel, do business, treat waste products and exploit natural resources. However, we may not be able to reverse the trend immediately, and remedial action may only slow down the rate of change.
For people living in isolated areas such as Chersky, already on the extreme margins of society, their homes and livelihoods are already seriously under threat. If the “Zombie Fires” do not endanger life and property through burning, the rapid melting of the permafrost and its knock-on effects eventually will.
Follow and connect with author Graeme Rendall on Twitter:@Borders750