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As record heat scorches western Russia and central Canada, climate alarm bells ring

Temperatures are already close to 90 degrees near the Arctic Circle, while wildfires rage in Canada’s interior provinces

A woman enjoys a hot spring day Monday in Moscow. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s only May, and temperatures near the Arctic Circle in northwestern Russia are approaching 90 degrees. In Moscow, temperatures have shattered records on consecutive days.

It has also been unusually warm in central Canada, where raging wildfires in Manitoba are sending plumes of smoke across retreating ice in Lake Winnipeg.

Summer has yet to begin in the northern hemisphere, but temperatures in high latitudes are already alarmingly warm, portending another brutally hot season while signaling more climate troubles.

Record heat in Russia

Since last week, historic warmth has swelled over much of western Russian and bled into eastern Scandinavia.

On Thursday, the mercury surged to 89.4 degrees in Naryan-Mar, Russia, a town near the Arctic Ocean and almost 1,000 miles northeast of Moscow. The temperature shattered the previous monthly record of 82 degrees, according to Serge Zaka, a meteorologist in France.

The scorching reading came a day after the temperature surged to 86.5 degrees in Nizhnyaya Pesha, about 800 miles northeast of Moscow, also inside the Arctic Circle. Etienne Kapikian, a meteorologist for Meteo France, tweeted it was one of the earliest 30 degree Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) readings ever seen that far north.

Numerous locations in western Russia set records Wednesday for their highest May temperatures.

Arkhangelsk, more than 600 miles north of Moscow near the shore of the Arctic Ocean, soared to nearly 90 degrees, its highest temperature ever recorded during the month.

Moscow broke temperature records over 100 years old on both Monday and Tuesday, according to the Moscow Times, reaching 86.7 degrees and 84.6 degrees. The Russian capital has seen temperatures at least 10 to 20 degrees above normal for days.

Muscovites sunbathed on park benches and swam in city fountains, filling Instagram feeds with bathing-suit selfies. Vendors set up portable ice cream stands along bridges and embankments.

The Moscow Metro handed out free water bottles at underground subway stations where temperature rose above 82.4 degrees, and took off entrance hall doors to increase air flow.

City authorities even issued a weather hazard level and offered guidance for citizens unaccustomed to what Roman Wilfand, the chief researcher at Russia’s Hydrometeorological Center, called “super heat.”

“It’s the subtropics,” he told the state-run Tass news agency. “This is not the temperature of middle latitudes. There is no climate like this in Moscow.”

Near the Russian border, the Finnish village of llomantsi hit 87.4 degrees Wednesday. It’s the second instance of temperatures that high so early in the year in Finland.

On Thursday morning, temperatures over a large part of western Russia were 20 to 40 degrees above normal. Anomalous warmth is projected to persist through Friday before shifting toward the central part of the country.

Blazing heat in Canada

On the other side of the northern hemisphere, fires have erupted in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario amid unusually warm and dry conditions.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported 20 heat records were broken Monday in Saskatchewan while temperatures in four Canadian provinces have recently surpassed 86 degrees.

Temperatures throughout central Canada were 10 to 30 degrees above normal early in the week, intensifying the blazes.

One fire in Saskatchewan forced the evacuation of at least 50 homes, CBC News wrote.

In Manitoba, the plumes of multiple large wildfires could be detected by weather satellites.

CBC News reported that one fire destroyed two homes and had forced the evacuation of about 80 households Tuesday. Multiple fires caused highway closures throughout the province.

The wildfire smoke prompted air quality advisories. “Localized areas of smoke are creating reduced visibilities and poor air quality down wind of fires,” wrote Environment Canada.

It’s not unusual for Manitoba to see wildfires at this time of year, said Rob Paola, a retired meteorologist from the Meteorological Service of Canada. But “this year has been especially intense fairly early given how dry our spring has been, and our low snowpack this past winter,” he told The Washington Post.

Some smoke from Manitoba has been carried by the jet stream into the northeastern United States, according to Santiago Gassó, an earth system scientist at the University of Maryland.

On Wednesday, he tweeted that smoke from the fires in Manitoba had reached New England and extended over the ocean offshore from the Mid-Atlantic region.

In northwest Ontario, more than a dozen forest fires were burning Tuesday, according to CBC News.

A powerful cold front sweeping east across central Canada is set to end the warm spell and is expected to help control the fires. Thunderstorms flared in southern Manitoba Wednesday afternoon, while snow fell behind the front in a much chillier air mass to the north and west. But unusually warm weather was forecast to shift into eastern Canada through Friday.

Climate change connections

The warmth seen in the high latitudes this month is consistent with what climate scientists expect with increasing frequency as the planet’s temperature rises due to human-caused climate change.

The exceptional warmth in western Russia comes a little less than a year after a town in northeast Siberia saw temperatures reach 100.4 degrees, the highest temperature ever documented in the Arctic Circle.

Wildfires, record warmth and rapidly melting ice: Arctic climate goes further off the rails

That triple-digit reading marked the climax of an exceptionally hot year in Siberia during which annual temperatures were more than 10.8 degrees above average.

“The 2020 Siberian heat was remarkable both for its magnitude and its persistence,” wrote the Copernicus Climate Change Service, the European Union’s climate monitoring agency in a report released this year.

The hot weather intensified summer fires, “which resulted in the largest annual amount of carbon emissions from wildfires in the region since at least 2003,” the Copernicus report stated.

Parts of Siberia, Alaska and Canada have also seen what are known as “zombie fires,” or blazes that emerge one season and then smolder through the winter within the soil before reigniting the next spring. A study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday found conditions for these holdover fires have become more frequent in recent decades.

The high latitudes are the planet’s fastest-warming area, and the Arctic is warming three times quicker than the global average.

To be sure, the extreme warmth seen in recent days is also related to the configuration of weather patterns that has helped focus high temperatures in central Canada and northwest Russia.

As Scott Duncan, a meteorologist based in London put it in a Twitter thread, “the Arctic … is often subject to extremely wild temperature swings.” But Duncan made clear the Arctic, particularly on the Russian side, “is experiencing more and more intense heatwaves” as the planet warms.

Siberian heat streak and Arctic temperature record virtually ‘impossible’ without global warming, study says

He concludes: “Human induced climate change is the key player here. We simply would not be able to achieve the severity of heat without a warming planet.”

Mary Ilyushina in Moscow contributed to this report.