Wildfire Smoke “Airpocalypse” in Siberia Grounds Flights, Threatens Human Health

Image: Степанов Слава via Wikimedia Commons

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Devastating wildfires in the world’s coldest region have led scientists to declare an “airpocalypse.” Siberia is being plagued by toxic fumes and wildfire smoke so thick that flights were suspended last week due to low visibility. 3.7 million acres of Northeastern Siberia have been destroyed, and with no end in sight, experts are predicting that this could be the worst air quality event in human history.

Why This Matters: Siberia’s forest fires aren’t just destroying land and forests. They’re releasing millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and accelerating melting permafrost. When firefighters put these fires out, they often don’t dissipate, instead they burrow deep into the ground, to burst out later in the year. Northeast Siberia is warming 2.5 times faster than the rest of the world, and experts say that these fires will grow more severe each year, presenting an even larger danger to the atmosphere.

The air pollution caused by these fires doesn’t stay put, as we’ve seen recently in the U.S., but can instead travel thousands of miles to heavily populated areas in Asia and Europe.

 

Parts Unknown:

High levels of particulate matter and possibly also chemicals including ozone, benzene, and hydrogen cyanide are thought likely to make this one of the world’s worst-ever air pollution events,” The Guardian reported.

  • With nearly two months left in the fire season, Siberia’s fires have already released 65 megatons of carbon emissions.
  • Air quality monitors reported levels of PM2.5, a type of particulate matter linked to an increase in COVID-19 cases, so high that they presented “immediate and heavy effects on everybody.”
  • In some regions, levels of PM2.5 have reached 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter, 40 times the World Health Organization’s safety guidelines.

Smoke from the fires has now blanketed 51 towns. Residents of Russia’s northeast Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, are left wondering when the air will finally be safe to breathe.

We can’t see each other because of the smoke, our eyes are burning, and overall the smoke is very dangerous for the health of us villagers,” said Vasiliy Krivoshapkin, a resident of Maglaras.

Over 2,000 people are now involved in the firefighting efforts. Military planes have been employed to seed clouds in an attempt to provoke rainfall, but fires have continued to expand.

Environmentalists and officials are now begging the public to take climate change seriously.

We are experiencing the driest summer in the past 150 years in Yakutia, and the month of June was the hottest on record,” said Yakutia Governor Aysen Nikolayev. “This, together with the dry thunderstorms that occur nearly daily in our republic, brought about significant wildfires.”

Alexey Yaroshenko, head of the forest department in Greenpeace Russia, called on the government to improve forest management. “For many years, propaganda has made people think that the climate crisis is a fiction, and if not fiction, that it will only benefit Russia since it will become warmer and more comfortable. Now the situation is starting to change,” he said. “The consequences are really catastrophic. But the majority of society and the majority of politicians are still very far from understanding the real scale of the problem.”

 

 

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