"Airpocalypse" in Siberia Plagues Human Health

"Airpocalypse" in Siberia

Devastating wildfires in Siberia -- the world's coldest inhabited region -- have led scientists to declare an "airpocalypse." An estimated 4.6 million acres of Northeastern Siberia have been destroyed, and with no end in sight, experts are predicting that this could be the worst air quality event in human history. And due low visibility from toxic fumes and wildfire smoke, air travel was suspended last week.

Why This Matters

Siberia's forest fires aren't just destroying land and forests. They're releasing millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and accelerating permafrost melt. When extinguished, the fires don't often dissipate. Instead, they burrow deep into the ground and burst out later in the year. Northeast Siberia is warming 2.5 times faster than the rest of the world, and experts say that these fires will grow more severe each year, presenting an even larger danger to the atmosphere.

The air pollution caused by fires doesn't stay put, as we've seen recently in the US. In this case, the pollution is traveling thousands of miles to heavily populated areas in Asia and Europe. July 2021 worldwide was the worst month of wildfires on record, say scientists. The Guardian reported that the ignition of forests and grasslands released 343 megatonnes of carbon last month, about a fifth higher than the previous global peak for July, which was set in 2014.

Dhaka Tribune inforgraphic (Sources: Reuters, BBC, Federal Forestry Agency), August 3, 2021.

Parts Unknown

"High levels of particulate matter and possibly also chemicals including ozone, benzene, and hydrogen cyanide are thought likely to make this one of the world's worst-ever air pollution events," the Guardian reported.

  • With nearly two months left in the fire season, Siberia's fires have already released 65 megatons of carbon emissions.
  • Air quality monitors reported such high levels of PM2.5 (a type of particulate matter linked to an increase in COVID-19 cases), presenting "immediate and heavy effects on everybody."
  • In some regions, levels of PM2.5 havereached 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter, which is forty times the World Health Organization's safety guidelines.

Smoke from the fires has now blanketed 51 towns. Residents of Russia's northeast Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, are left wondering when the air will finally be safe to breathe.

"We can't see each other because of the smoke, our eyes are burning, and overall the smoke is very dangerous for the health of us villagers," said Vasiliy Krivoshapkin, a resident of Maglaras.

Over 2,000 people are now involved in the firefighting efforts. Military planes have been employed to seed clouds in an attempt to provoke rainfall, but fires have continued to expand.

Environmentalists and officials are now begging the public to take climate change seriously.

"We are experiencing the driest summer in the past 150 years in Yakutia, and the month of June was the hottest on record," said Yakutia Governor Aysen Nikolayev. "This, together with the dry thunderstorms that occur nearly daily in our republic, brought about significant wildfires."

Alexey Yaroshenko, forest expert at Greenpeace Russia, called on the government to improve forest management. "For many years, propaganda has made people think that the climate crisis is a fiction, and if not fiction, that it will only benefit Russia since it will become warmer and more comfortable. Now the situation is starting to change," he said. "The consequences are really catastrophic. But the majority of society and the majority of politicians are still very far from understanding the real scale of the problem."