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Size of Siberian Wildfires Remain in Question

CLIMATEWIRE – Large wildfires are a natural process in some of Siberia’s forest ecosystems, but warmer temperatures and drier conditions may be leading to larger and more ferocious burns that could threaten the forests’ ability to regenerate.

Written by Brittany Patterson Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Irkutsk amo 2016181 lrg
In late June 2016, satellites observed thick plumes of smoke rising from dozens of large wildfires in north-central Russia. NASA Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen

While the United States watches the fire season heat up in the West, on the other side of the world, Siberian wildfires are scorching forests and sending up smoke plumes visible from space.

But read the official Russian fire data and the numbers tell a very different story.

According to a bulletin released on July 28, the Russian Federal Agency for Forestry reports that there have been 103 forest fires covering 13,935 hectares across Russia, to date.

A report released by Greenpeace in May claims the Russian government is vastly underreporting the extent of fires in Siberia. Using NASA satellite data, the group estimated that 3.5 million hectares have burned since the start of 2016, or an area about the size of Belgium.

The disconnect allows the Russian government to ignore both the environmental and carbon emissions consequences of a growing fire threat, said Alexey Yaroshenko, head of the forestry program at Greenpeace Russia.

“We think that without complete and truthful information about fires, neither our society nor government and lawmakers can understand real threats of fires and become really motivated to solve fire-related problems,” he said. “Depletion of forests is a major driver of new development of forest wilderness, increased loss of intact forest landscapes, and we see it as an extremely important environmental problem.”

The Russian province is no stranger to big fires, which are a natural and healthy process in Siberia’s many different forest ecosystems. However, warmer temperatures and drier conditions seem to be contributing to a rise in the number of big burns.

Researchers warn that more fire jeopardizes the ability of forests to regenerate and may threaten Russia’s vast forest carbon sink, which by some estimates holds between 300 million and 600 million metric tons of carbon.

“If you look at the whole area over the past 30 years, there’s a significant increase in burned area that is very clear by the early 2000s,” said Susan Conrad, a former U.S. Forest Service scientist who has spent decades researching the impact of fire on Siberia.

Conrad and a group of Russian, Canadian and American colleagues have tracked the incidence of “big fires,” or those about 5,000 acres in size or larger, almost completely since 1979. They’ve found a sharp uptick.

Conrad said there are multiple reasons why the fire data are underreported. For example, local fire managers are financially incentivized to report low numbers. Furthermore, the government only counts fires if they burn in the region in which the government actively fights fires, which leaves blazes in the far north off the books.

There’s also the politics of the matter.

“Just anecdotally, I have friends in Moscow that said when they’ve had big fires in past years, they would send in daily reports about the areas that were burning and be told, ‘No, you can’t give us that high of a number,’” she said.

Either way, having accurate numbers wouldn’t slow the increasing fire threat due to increasing temperatures, dry fuels and drought conditions. For example, six weeks of abnormally high temperatures has forced the district of Yamal in northwest Siberia to declare a state of emergency after 1,000 acres of tundra were burned in a 24-hour period, The Siberian Times reports.

Russia is home to about 20 percent of the boreal forest on the planet. Boreal forest, sometimes called taiga, consists of species such as pine, spruce and larch. Siberia has multiple kinds of coniferous and deciduous boreal forest ecosystems, as well as marshy peatlands and forests with grasslands interspersed.

Across those landscapes, the natural incidence of fire varies. So while a robust fire season such as the one currently underway is not necessarily a problem in itself, the impacts of climate change on fire create both landscape and fire conditions that can shift Siberian forests away from their natural state and affect carbon storage.

For example, there is worry that Siberia’s carbon-rich peatlands may dry out and smolder for months, turning these ancient carbon sinks into sources.

Severe fires may also reduce the ability of coniferous trees to recolonize in the dark taiga forest types in central Siberia, said Susanne Tautenhahn, a researcher at Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany. Her research found that since conifer seeds can only travel short distances, if fires completely destroy conifers in a region, they are unable to repopulate the forest. This allows deciduous trees to move in.

Tautenhahn said this shift can have climate impacts. An increase in deciduous trees in ecosystems that were previously home to conifers could lead to an increase in evaporative cooling and carbon turnover, she said.

Still, she said, it’s not entirely clear how Siberia’s boreal forests are going to fare, as temperatures rise twice as fast there than in other places.

“Fires are an important part of the boreal forests, but it is still unclear what happens if these fires are becoming much more intensive,” she said.

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from E&E Publishing, LLC. Copyright 2016. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net. Click here for the original story.

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