A recent Greenpeace report has identified a new addition to the panoply of threats the world now faces, in the form of Siberian wildfires. Greenpeace has discovered through examination of new Lance Vadis photography that despite government claims of 85,000 hectares of wildfires as of June 2016, this figure is closer to 3.5 million (35,000 sq km). If these figures continue, the organisation warns, Siberian wildfire extent for 2016 could reach the unprecedented levels of 2012, when 110,000 sq km of boreal forest was burnt – an area three times the size of Belgium. At approximately 12 million km2, it is considered the largest forested region in the world – even larger than the Amazon. The World Wildlife Fund is also keen to stress that it is also one of the most ‘biologically outstanding’ places in the world, home to a range of species – from wolves and brown bears to golden eagles and Siberian accentors.
Russian media have tried to take a more measured view, by saying that much of the fire extent was controlled land use change. However a growing understanding is taking shape: temperatures are a lot warmer, and forest fires are more commonplace. Annually the Russian forests absorb a net 500 million tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere, equivalent to the emissions put off over a year by 534 coal-burning power plants.
Yet ‘forest fire danger and carbon emissions will double or triple by the end of the century’, expert Anatoly Shvidenko, who served on the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), told AFP.
“Abnormally high temperatures for this Arctic area – described as ‘unbearable heat’ – has been going on for six weeks. Forest and tundra has dried out and up to 10 new wildfires start every day.”
The Arctic is warming at a rate 2-3 times the rest of the globe, and at temperatures 15-25℃ above average near Arctic shores, the risk of Arctic wildfires is greatly increased, with associated feedback effects due to thawing methane below the tundra.
This heating effect has been witnessed throughout Canada and North America over the last few years, with 2015 being the worst year for wildfires in America across all metrics. More than 4.5 million hectares (10m acres; 45,000 sq km) were burned, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center.
The increase in ‘megafires’ as they are now known, has been of particular interest to the insurance industry. 2015 ended up being the most expensive wildfire season on record, costing the U.S. Forest Service $1.71 billion for the year, according to USA Today, with the Fort McMurray tar sands fire coming in at $3.58 billion dollars and being the most expensive disaster in Canadian history. The event was thought to be a major contributory factor in pushing Canada’s economy into negative territory (-1.9% growth in 2016) for the first time since 2009.
It is notoriously difficult to determine the exact percentage of global CO2 emissions attributable to forest fires, as this emissions quotient is often bulked together with other proponents of the LULUC/AFOLU category, as attested by the recent ISPCC Fifth Assessment report of 2014. What is certain (as relayed by the Copernicus satellite instrumentation), is that Indonesia’s peat fires were also of significant proportions. These fires burn underground for many weeks, even months, releasing many toxic chemicals as well as CO2, and apparently sent Indonesia (with a population the size of America but much lower emissions on average) to the top of the GHG tables.
Many would point to the need to limit forest fire risk as a fundamental mechanism of any broad-ranged carbon offsetting regime, and also to engage more actively with reforestation. Such schemes would need to occur in areas where genuinely accidental fires occur, and are likely to remain wild. Unfortunately, when we superimpose forest fire prevention onto the offsetting paradigm as a whole, we start to see the amorphous nature of the problem that needs tackling. Not an enviable task, many would agree.