Alexander Deyev can still taste the smoke from last year’s wildfires that blanketed the towns near his home in southeastern Siberia, and he is dreading their return.
But already this year, fires in the spring arrived earlier and with more ferocity, government officials have said. In the territory where Deyev lives, fires were three times as large this April as the year before. And the hot, dry summer lies ahead.
Much of the world remains consumed with the deadly novel coronavirus. The United States, crippled by the pandemic, is in the throes of a divisive presidential campaign and protests over racial inequality. But at the top of the globe, the Arctic is enduring its own summer of discontent.
Wildfires are raging amid record-breaking temperatures. Permafrost is thawing, infrastructure is crumbling and sea ice is dramatically vanishing.
In Siberia and across much of the Arctic, profound changes are unfolding more rapidly than scientists anticipated only a few years ago. Shifts that once seemed decades away are happening now, with potentially global implications.
“We always expected the Arctic to change faster than the rest of the globe,” said Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “But I don’t think anyone expected the changes to happen as fast as we are seeing them happen.”
Vladimir Romanovsky, a researcher at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, said the pace, severity and extent of the changes are surprising even to many researchers who study the region for a living. Predictions for how quickly the Arctic would warm that once seemed extreme “underestimate what is going on in reality,” he said. The temperatures occurring in the High Arctic during the past 15 years were not predicted to occur for 70 more years, he said.
Neither Dallas nor Houston has hit 100 degrees yet this year, but in one of the coldest regions of the world, Siberia’s “Pole of Cold,” the mercury climbed to 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) on June 20.
If confirmed, the record-breaker in the remote Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, about 3,000 miles east of Moscow, would stand as the highest temperature in the Arctic since record-keeping began in 1885.
The triple-digit record was not a freak event, either, but instead part of a searing heat wave. Verkhoyansk saw 11 straight days with a high temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius) or above, according to Rick Thoman, a climate scientist at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. The average June high at that location is just 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 Celsius).
This week, Ust’-Olenek, Russia, about 450 miles north of the Arctic Circle, recorded a temperature of 93.7 degrees (34.3 Celsius), about 40 degrees above average for the date. On May 22, the Siberian town of Khatanga, located well north of the Arctic Circle, recorded a temperature of 78 degrees Fahrenheit — about 46 degrees above normal.
Much of Siberia experienced an exceptionally mild winter, followed by a warmer-than- average spring, and it has been among the most unusually warm regions of the world during 2020. During May, parts of Siberia saw an average monthly temperature that was a staggering 18 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius) above average for the month, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.
“To me, these are kind of the key ingredients of things you expect in a warming climate,” Freja Vamborg, a senior scientist at Copernicus, said of the recent heat records, coupled with prolonged months of higher-than-average temperatures.
The persistent warmth has helped to fuel wildfires, eviscerate sea ice and destabilize homes and other buildings constructed on thawing permafrost. It allegedly even contributed to a massive fuel spill in Norilsk in late May that prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to declare a state of emergency in the environmentally sensitive region.
Already, sea ice in the vicinity of Siberia is running at record-low levels for any year since reliable satellite monitoring began in 1979.
Scientists have long maintained that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. But in reality, the region is now warming at nearly three times the global average. Data from NASA shows that since 1970, the Arctic has warmed by an average of 5.3 degrees (2.94 Celsius), compared with the global average of 1.71 degrees (0.95 Celsius) during the same period. Scientists refer to the phenomenon as “Arctic amplification.”
The melting of snow and ice earlier in the spring exposes darker land surfaces and ocean waters. This switches these areas from being net reflectors of incoming solar radiation to heat absorbers, which further increases land and sea temperatures. That means more warmth in the air, more melting of snow and ice, and drying of vegetation in a way that creates more fuel for wildfires.
What happens in the Arctic matters for the rest of the globe. Greenland ice melt is already the biggest contributor to sea-level rise worldwide, studies show. The loss of Arctic sea ice is also thought to be leading to more-
extreme weather patterns far outside the Arctic, in a complex series of ripple effects that may be partly responsible for extreme heat and precipitation events that have claimed thousands of lives in recent years.
The fires that have erupted in Siberia this summer have been massive, sending out plumes of smoke that have covered a swath of land spanning about 1,000 miles at times. While much of the fire activity has occurred in the Sakha Republic, known for such blazes, scientists are observing more fires farther north, above the Arctic Circle, in peatlands and tundra.
“This seems to be a new pattern,” said Jessica McCarty, a researcher at Miami University in Ohio. In past years, fires “were sparse if not unheard of in these regions.”
One concern is that such fires could be destabilizing peatlands and permafrost — the carbon-rich frozen soil that covers nearly a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere’s land mass, stretching across large parts of Alaska, Canada, Siberia and Greenland.
Merritt Turetsky, director of the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said fires in Siberia are burning “in areas where we expect permafrost to be more vulnerable.” Typically, these fires would break out in July and August, but this year they spiked in May, a sign of the unusual heat and early snow melt.
Turetsky said the fires are removing the blanket of vegetation that covers permafrost, making it more vulnerable to melting.
Satellite observations of Arctic wildfires in June also showed that fires this year are emitting more greenhouse gases than the record Arctic fires in 2019, according to Mark Parrington, who tracks wildfires around the world with the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.
Some of these blazes appear to be what are known as “zombie fires,” which survive the winter season smoldering underground only to erupt again once snow and ice melts the following spring. Similar fires have been observed in Alaska this summer.
Ted Schuur, a professor at Northern Arizona University who researches permafrost emissions, said the rapid warming is turning the Arctic into a net emitter of greenhouse gases — a disconcerting shift that threatens to dramatically hasten global warming. The unusually mild conditions in Siberia are particularly worrisome, as the region is home to the largest zone of continuous permafrost in the world.
There has long been concern throughout the scientific community that the approximately 1,460 billion to 1,600 billion metric tons of organic carbon stored in frozen Arctic soils, from Russia to Alaska to Canada, could be released as the permafrost melts. That is almost twice the amount of greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere. Recent research by Schuur and others shows that warmer temperatures allow microbes within the soil to convert permafrost carbon into carbon dioxide and methane.
A report late last year that Schuur co-authored found that permafrost ecosystems could be releasing as much as 1.1 billion to 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year — nearly as much as the annual emissions of Japan and Russia in 2018, respectively.
“A decade ago we thought more of the permafrost would be resistant to change,” said Schuur. The more scientists look for destabilizing permafrost and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, the more they find such evidence.
Rapid warming has altered their calculations. “We’re basically setting records in the Arctic year after year,” Schuur said. “These emissions are now adding to our climate change problem. What happens in Siberia is going to affect everything through the global climate system.”
Researchers have watched as the changes sweeping the Arctic threaten major infrastructure, including homes and cities in the region.
“Will roads, buildings, oil and gas pipelines be able to survive without emergency [interventions], due to permafrost degradation?” Alexander Fedorov, deputy director of the Melnikov Permafrost Institute in the regional capital of Yakutsk, said in an email. “One must live on stable lands. In Siberia and the Arctic, many settlements and infrastructure were built before global warming, before there were problems. The main thing is not to be late with the solutions, because many villages are located in dangerous and vulnerable areas.”
For all the disconcerting signals coming out of the Arctic right now, the potential for troubling events remains high in the coming months, Meier said.
Sea ice typically reaches its minimum in September, he noted. Ice melt accelerates in Greenland during June and July. Wildfires have the potential to worsen as summer drags on. Intense summer storms can cause permafrost degradation and worsen coastal erosion.
“Certainly, 2020 is a strange year all around, for a lot of reasons beyond climate,” Meier said. “But it’s certainly setting up to be an extreme year in the Arctic.”
That might seem like a distant problem to the rest of the world. But those who study the Arctic insist the rest of us should pay close attention.
“When we develop a fever, it’s a sign. It’s a warning sign that something is wrong and we stop and we take note,” Turetsky said. “Literally, the Arctic is on fire. It has a fever right now, and so it’s a good warning sign that we need to stop, take note and figure out what’s going on.”
Khurshudyan reported from Moscow. Olga Massov in Washington contributed to this report.