As frozen land burns, Siberia trembles over sustainability threats

A forest fire burns on the road between Magaras and Berdigestyakh, west of Yakutsk, Russia, in July 2021.
A forest fire burns on the road between Magaras and Berdigestyakh, west of Yakutsk, Russia, in July 2021.PHOTO: NYTIMES

MAGARAS, RUSSIA (NYTIMES) - 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 deg Fahrenheit (37.8 deg C), feeding enormous blazes that thaw what was once permanently frozen ground.

Last year, wildfires scorched more than 60,000 square miles (155,399 sq km) of forest and tundra. This year, more than 30,000 square miles have already burned in Russia, with the region only two weeks into its peak fire season.

Scientists say the 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 senior scientist Mark Parrington from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service in Reading, England.

Life here revolves around the northern forest, known as the taiga. It is the source of berries, mushrooms, meat, timber and firewood. When it burns, the permafrost below it thaws more quickly, turning lush woods into impenetrable swamps.

Scientists say the fires have accelerated to an extraordinary pace in the past three years, threatening the sustainability of the taiga ecosystem.

"If we don't have the forest, we don't have life," said Magaras resident Maria Nogovitsina.

Four days of travels in Yakutia this month revealed a near-universal sentiment that the Russian government did not grasp the people's plight. Rather than accept official explanations that climate change is to blame, many repeat conspiracy theories, among them that the fires were set by crooked officials or businessmen hoping to profit from them.

For years, President Vladimir Putin rejected the fact that humans bear responsibility for the warming climate. But last month, he sounded a new message in a call-in show, warning that the thawing permafrost could lead to "very serious social and economic consequences".