The Arctic is on fire: Siberian heat wave alarms scientists

MOSCOW – The Arctic is feverish and on fire, at least parts of it. And that has scientists concerned with what it means to the rest of the world.

The thermometer hit a probable record 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit) on Saturday in Russia’s Arctic city of Verkhoyansk, a temperature that would be feverish for a person, but this is Siberia, known to be frozen. The World Meteorological Organization said Tuesday that it is seeking to verify the temperature reading, which would be unprecedented in the region north of the Arctic Circle.

“The Arctic is on fire figuratively and literally: it is warming up much faster than we thought in response to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and this warming is causing rapid melting and an increase in forest fires. ” The dean of the University of Michigan environmental school, Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist, said in an email.

“The record warming in Siberia is a major warning sign,” Overpeck wrote.

Much of Siberia had high temperatures this year that went beyond excruciating heat. From January to May, the average temperature in north-central Siberia has been about 8 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) above average, according to nonprofit climate science Berkeley Earth.

“That is much, much warmer than ever in that region in that time period,” said Berkeley Earth climate scientist Zeke Hausfather.

Siberia is in the Guinness Book of World Records for its extreme temperatures. It is a place where the thermometer has oscillated 106 degrees Celsius (190 degrees Fahrenheit), from a low of minus 68 degrees Celsius (minus 90 Fahrenheit) until now 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 Fahrenheit).

For residents of the Sakha Republic in the Russian Arctic, a heat wave is not necessarily a bad thing. Vasilisa Ivanova spent every day this week with her family swimming and sunbathing.

“We spend all day on the bank of the Lena River,” said Ivanova, who lives in the village of Zhigansk, 270 miles (430 km) from where the heat record was set. “We have come every day since Monday.”

But for scientists, “the alarms should be ringing,” Overpeck wrote.

Such prolonged Siberian heat has not been seen in thousands of years “and is another sign that the Arctic is amplifying global warming even more than we thought,” Overpeck said.

Russia’s arctic regions are among the world’s fastest warming zones.

The temperature on Earth in recent decades has been growing, on average, by 0.18 degrees Celsius (almost a third of a degree Fahrenheit) every 10 years. But in Russia it increases by 0.47 degrees Celsius (0.85 degrees Fahrenheit), and in the Russian Arctic by 0.69 degrees Celsius (1.24 degrees Fahrenheit) every decade, said Andrei Kiselyov, the chief scientist at the Observatory Principal Geophysicist Voeikov based in Moscow.

“In that sense, we are ahead of the entire planet,” said Kiselyov.

Rising temperatures in Siberia have been linked to prolonged forest fires that become more severe each year and the thawing of permafrost, a big problem because buildings and pipes are built on top of them. Thawing permafrost also releases more heat-trapping gas and dries the soil, increasing wildfires, said Vladimir Romanovsky, who studies permafrost at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“In this case it is even more serious, because the previous winter was unusually warm,” said Romanovsky. The permafrost thaws, the ice melts, the soil gives way and can then trigger a feedback loop that worsens the thawing of the permafrost and “cold winters cannot stop it,” Romanovsky said.

A catastrophic oil spill from a collapsed storage tank last month near the Arctic city of Norilsk was partly attributed to the melting of permafrost. In 2011, part of a residential building in Yakutsk, the largest city in the Sakha Republic, collapsed due to thawing and sinking of the ground.

Last August, more than 4 million hectares of forest in Siberia were on fire, according to Greenpeace. This year, the fires started burning much earlier than usual in July, said Vladimir Chuprov, director of the project department at Greenpeace Russia.

Persistent warm weather, especially when combined with forest fires, causes permafrost to thaw faster, which in turn exacerbates global warming by releasing large amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is 28 times stronger. than carbon dioxide, said Katey Walter Anthony of the University of Alaska. Fairbanks expert in releasing methane from frozen Arctic soil.

“Methane escaping from the permafrost melting sites enters the atmosphere and circulates throughout the world,” he said. “Methane originating in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. It has global ramifications. “

And what happens in the Arctic can even warp the climate in the United States and Europe.

In the summer, unusual warming narrows the temperature and pressure difference between the Arctic and the lower latitudes where more people live, said Judah Cohen, a winter weather expert at Atmospheric Environmental Research, a commercial company outside Boston.

That appears to weaken and sometimes even stop the jet stream, meaning that weather systems like those that generate extreme heat or rain can stay parked in places for days, Cohen said.

According to meteorologists from the Russian meteorological agency Rosgidrome t, a combination of factors, such as a high-pressure system with a clear sky and very high sun, extremely long daylight hours and short warm nights, have contributed to the increase in temperature in Siberia.

“The soil surface is heated intensely. … The nights are very hot, the air does not have time to cool down and continues to heat for several days, “said Marina Makarova, chief meteorologist at Rosgidromet.

Makarova added that the temperature in Verkhoyansk remained unusually high from Friday to Monday.

Scientists agree that the increase is indicative of a much larger global warming trend.

“The key point is that the climate is changing and global temperatures are warming up,” said Freja Vamborg, chief scientist at the Copernicus Climate Change Service in the UK. “As we move forward, we will break more and more records.”

“What is clear is that warming the Arctic adds fuel to warming the entire planet,” said Waleed Abdalati, a former chief scientist at NASA who is now at the University of Colorado.


Borenstein reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jim Heintz in Moscow, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Jamey Keaten in Geneva, and Roman Kutukov in Yakutsk, Russia contributed to this report.