Northeastern Siberia is a place where people take Arctic temperatures in stride. But 100-degree days are another matter entirely.
MAGARAS, Russia — The call for help lit up villagers’ phones at 7:42 on a muggy and painfully smoky evening on Siberia’s fast-warming permafrost expanse.
“We urgently ask all men to come to the town hall at 8,” read the WhatsApp message from the mayor’s office. “The fire has reached the highway.”
A farmer hopped on a tractor towing a big blue bag of water and trundled into a foreboding haze. The ever-thickening smoke cut off sunlight, and the wind whipped ash into his unprotected face. Flames along the highway glowed orange and hot, licking up the swaying roadside trees.
“We need a bigger tractor!” the driver soon yelled, aborting his mission and rushing back to town as fast as his rumbling machine could take him.
For the third year in a row, residents of northeastern Siberia are reeling from the worst wildfires they can remember, and many are left feeling helpless, angry and alone.
They endure the coldest winters outside Antarctica with little complaint. But in recent years, summer temperatures in the Russian Arctic have gone as high as 100 degrees, feeding enormous blazes that thaw what was once permanently frozen ground.
Last year, wildfires scorched more than 60,000 square miles of forest and tundra, an area the size of Florida. That is more than four times the area that burned in the United States during its devastating 2020 fire season. This year, more than 30,000 square miles have already burned in Russia, according to government statistics, with the region only two weeks into its peak fire season.
Scientists say that the huge fires have been made possible by the extraordinary summer heat in recent years in northern Siberia, which has been warming faster than just about any other part of the world. And the impact may be felt far from Siberia. The fires may potentially accelerate climate change by releasing enormous quantities of greenhouse gases and destroying Russia’s vast boreal forests, which absorb carbon out of the atmosphere.
Last year, the record-setting fires in the remote Siberian region of Yakutia released roughly as much carbon dioxide as did all the fuel consumption in Mexico in 2018, according to Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service in Reading, England.