A line of upper atmospheric smoke passes across the face of the moon on the night of 6 July 2012. This photo was taken out of the window of the airplane en route from St. Petersburg to Krasnoyarsk. Smoke that reaches the upper atmosphere often travels long distances. This smoke has the potential reach North America within a few days. Jon Ranson

By Dr. Jon Ranson
9 July 2012

[…] The flight delays were caused by smoke from a large number of forest fires that are burning across central Russia.  Coming from St. Petersburg to Krasnoyarsk on July 6, we were high-flying witnesses to a smoky scene.  At 33,000 feet, our airspace was smoke-free. But a thick blanket of smoke hung over much of the land below.  Smoke also rose into the upper atmosphere.  Smoke that high can travel long distances – some might even make it across the ocean to North America soon.

We left St. Petersburg near sunset, with the sun low on the horizon.  Smoky sunsets create very red skies, and the colors were pretty spectacular. It reminded me of the sunsets I saw just a few weeks ago when I visited Greely, Colorado. I was close to the High Park fire, and the sky was an amazing, blazing orange at sunset.  That was only one fire, however.  Dozens, or maybe hundreds, that colored the sky on July 6, as we passed above the smoke.

We flew over a huge, curving river of thick smoke.  It truly looked like a river, flowing, I think, generally north to south. We passed over it from west to east. As the sun set and the light dimmed, I could see the glow from some active fires.  As we passed near the Ob River, in the vicinity of our 2010 expedition, dark plumes of smoke rose high in the sky.

In another spot, I believe within an hour of Krasnoyarsk, we flew over a huge burn scar.  It was really stunning.  I was on the left side of the plane, and this scar extended way to the north, maybe even to the Arctic Sea. It took us several minutes to fly over it, so I’m estimating the scar was around 100 km across.  Just massive. […]

I keep thinking of the huge amount of smoke we’ve witnessed. The amount of forests burning this year is sobering, especially following the historically massive fire year in 2010.  Even though fire is a normal part of forest succession in the boreal forest, the impression is that there are too many fires, too soon after the last outbreak.  It just is not typical.

In far northern Siberia, where we are heading this year, the fire return intervals are on the order of every 250 to 300 years or so. That interval has been well-studied, and we’re confident in that finding.  Fire is important to the larch forest ecosystem, but it is an uncommon event.

It is ironic that we are here to study, among other things, the effect of warming on the fire return interval.  It is predicted that as temperatures rise, fires will become more frequent.  Temperatures have risen in this area over the last several decades,. We will be collecting samples to see if fire frequency has risen in our study area, far north of here.

In 2010, we came to Siberia by way of Beijing, because the forests around Moscow were burning.  That year, we worked an area north of Tomsk, near the Ob River.  We didn’t have fire there that year, but we did see some fairly fresh burn scars.  Now, two years later, our flights are again delayed by widespread blazes in taiga.  And our 2012 study area appears to be on fire – so soon.  Fortunately, the taiga surrounding the Embenchime is not currently on fire, so we don’t anticipate any danger.

It’s sobering to realize that in two years so close together that the taiga has suffered such extreme fires.  Is this result of climate change? Or a freak occurrence?  What I know, for sure, is that these fires appear to be consuming a lot of forest.  They must be releasing a whole lot of carbon into the atmosphere – and what happens here does affect the rest of our world.  I believe we really do need to pay attention to the health of the boreal forests, for the sake of all the Earth.

Siberia 2012: A Slow and Smoky Arrival

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