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Why This Matters: Russia’s old-growth forests are some of the most extensive intact forests globally, containing 640 billion trees. Those trees are now falling victim to temperature rise and fire at alarming rates.
Not only are these fires destructive, but they are becoming more challenging to fight, burning underground during winter and spring, only to resurface for wildfire season. Without swift action to halt global temperature rise and protect old-growth forests, these fires will get larger and more uncontrollable each year.
Fire and Ice
On Saturday, NASA published an image taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) showing a smoke cloud spanning 3,000 miles from Northeast Siberia to the North Pole. One Chinese news agency reported that the cloud could be seen from Mongolia, more than 1,200 miles away. So far this year, Siberia’s wildfires have released more than 505 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere, surpassing the 450 million tons released during the 2020 season. That year, experts warned that temperature rise and wildfires would only continue to break records, but Russian environmentalists say the government still won’t listen.
In mid-July, as more than 300 different wildfires blazed in the region, only half were being combatted by firefighters. Since then, those fires have grown by thousands of square miles. “For years, officials and opinion leaders have been saying that fires are normal, that the taiga is always burning, and there is no need to make an issue out of this. People are used to it,” Alexei Yaroshenko, a forestry expert with Greenpeace Russia, told The Washington Post. Environmental advocates blame a law that allows the Russian government to let forests burn without intervention so long as they do not impact inhabited areas. Yaroshenko says that the decline of forests is directly linked to the decline of forest management.
Yaroshenko says that disinformation plays a significant role in that decline. The country’s Aerial Forest Protection Service has maintained that lightning strikes, not climate change, are primarily responsible for the fires. Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology only counts fires that threaten populated areas, leading to lower figures in official tracking. “Officials just lie about the scale of it, that is, they willfully misrepresent the data,” said Yaroshenko. “It’s no longer possible to hide the fire, as everyone can see what’s happening with satellite images, but the habit is there, and they still sometimes try to hide these fires.”
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