Global Warming Effects Around the World

Western Siberia

Top Impact

Temperature (Air)

Other Impacts

Ecosystems (Land)

Temperature (Ground)

High temperatures and thawing permafrost are probably contributing to more forest fires in western Siberia

High temperatures and thawing permafrost are probably contributing to the rising frequency and severity of boreal forest fires in western Siberia. In 2003, a fire of unprecedented scope claimed 47 million acres (20 million hectares) of forest, releasing enormous amounts of stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.1

Key Facts

West Siberia is home to the world's largest expanse of peat lands—covering an area nearly the size of Texas.2,3 These peat lands are interspersed with boreal forest, and both are typically underlain with permafrost (permanently frozen ground). As temperatures rise and permafrost thaws, previously stored carbon and methane are released into the atmosphere. Under these conditions, fire risk in northern boreal forests also becomes more severe, further increasing the chances of carbon releases4,5 which accelerate climate change.2

  • Air temperatures in West Siberia are rising faster than those in most lower-latitude regions.3,6,15
  • The forest fire season in Siberia has been starting earlier in the year and causing more long-term damage to local ecosystems.5
  • In West Siberia, the world's largest frozen peat bog is reportedly releasing carbon into rivers (as dissolved carbon) or the atmosphere (as methane or carbon dioxide).7

Details

The West Siberian Plain—the world's largest—extends east from the Urals to the Yenisey River.8 Stretching from the Arctic Ocean to the foothills of the Altay Mountains in southern Russia, the plain encompasses more than 618 million acres (2.5 million square kilometers).8,9 The region contains all the major vegetation zones except for tropical forests, including some of the world's largest swamps and floodplains and vast boreal forests.8,9

Russia's boreal forest, or the taiga, is the largest forested region on Earth (approximately 4.6 million square miles or 12 million square km). These forests are composed primarily of conifers—firs, spruces and pines—but may also include some deciduous trees such as larch, tamarack and birch. Mixed in among the forests are bogs, fens, marshes, shallow lakes, rivers and wetlands, which hold vast amounts of water and are mostly frozen.9

Russia is also home to about 60 percent of the world's peat resources, most of which are found in Siberia.10 Peat is partially decomposed plant matter accumulating in bogs, wetlands, moors, and the like and is typically situated in cold regions that are frozen for a significant portion of the year. These peat lands cover more than 1.878 billion acres (760 million hectares). The permafrost of the world's largest peat bog, in West Siberia,10 contains some 70 billion metric tons of methane—equal to about 16 percent of all the carbon added to the atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion, land-use changes, and cement manufacture over the course of the past 150 years (from 1850 to 2000).7

The thawing of permafrost in the region has been linked to global warming.5 Annual average air temperatures rose 1.1° F (0.6° C) from 1960 to 2005,6,11,12 while permafrost at a depth of 33 feet (10 meters) warmed an average of 0.5°-1.3° F (0.3°-0.7° C).6,12

Part of a Larger Pattern

Boreal forests and peat lands—which often include carbon-containing permafrost—play a critical role in the global carbon cycle, and therefore in regulating climate change.7,15

Boreal forest fires have been a naturally occurring phenomenon across the globe for more than a millennium.5,13,14 In Russia, these fires tend to take place in West Siberia, where they are also likely to be the most severe.5,14

The frequency and intensity of forest fires in the region have been increasing along with rising temperatures.5,7,13 An average of around 9.9 million acres (4 million hectares) of boreal forest burned annually in Russia from 1975 to 2005—and that rate more than doubled in the 1990s.15 One of West Siberia's largest forest fires on record occurred in 2003, claiming some 47 million acres (20 million hectares) of land7,15 and emitting heat-trapping emissions equal to the total cuts in emissions the European Union pledged under the Kyoto Protocol.2,7,16 Higher temperatures and thawing permafrost are probably contributing to the rising frequency and severity of forest fires in West Siberia.5,7,14

Permafrost is particularly sensitive to direct changes in air temperature, making it especially vulnerable to climate change.18 As air temperatures rise and permafrost begins to thaw, it can release both carbon dioxide and methane.17,18,19 Methane is more than 25 times as effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.20 Although methane remains in the atmosphere for only 10 to 15 years, its warming effects can span more than a century.21 That's because, after a decade or so, the methane converts to carbon dioxide, which lingers for much longer time.20,21 Permafrost degradation is likely to significantly amplify climate change by releasing heat-trapping gases that have been stored in the soil often for thousands of years.19

What the Future Holds

Projected changes in the climate of West Siberia, especially under the high emissions scenario22, greatly increases the amount of territory that is likely to experience the hotter weather that sets up extreme fire danger. Under those conditions, the spread of fires in the boreal forests of Eurasia would greatly increase once such a fire is started.23 If global warming continues at its current pace, the annual fire season in these boreal forests are likely to start earlier and end later, and become more severe.5,7,6,15

In fact, if we continue on our current path of high heat-trapping emissions, the region is projected to see forest fires during June and July at two to three times its current rate.2,6 Some 1 billion metric tons of organic matter and older-growth trees could burn7,15—accelerating the release of stored carbon and creating a dangerous global warming amplification or feedback loop.5,14

The fate of the forests and peat bogs of West Siberia depends on the choices we make today. Acting quickly to make deep cuts in our heat-trapping emissions can help reduce the frequency and severity of forest fires in the region and may protect permafrost from completely thawing. Perhaps most important, we can slow down the dangerous amplification that is created when forest fires and melting permafrost emit more and more carbon, leading to hotter conditions, which favor more fires and melting permafrost, and so on in a loop that locks in more severe changing climate.

Credits

Endnotes

  1. Photograph courtesy of iStockphoto.
  2. Frey, K.E., and L.C. Smith. 2005. Amplified carbon release from vast West Siberian peatlands by 2100. Geophysical Research Letters 32:1-4.
  3. U.S. Census Bureau. Texas Quick Facts from the US Census Bureau, Washington, DC. http://quickfacts.census.gov/ qfd/ states/ 48000.html. Accessed September 27, 2010.
  4. Bartsch, A., H. Balzterand, and C. George. 2009. The influence of regional surface soil moisture anomalies on forest fires in Siberia observed from satellites. Environmental Research Letters 4 (045021). doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/4/4/045021. Online at stacks.iop.org/ ERL/ 4/ 045021. Accessed September 27, 2010.
  5. Stocks, B. J., M.A. Fosberg, T.J. Lynham, L. Mearns, B.M. Wotton, Q. Yang, J-Z Jin, K. Lawrence, G.R. Hartlet, J.A. Mason, and D.W. McKenney. 1998. Climate change and forest fire potential in Russian and Canadian boreal rorests. Climatic Change 38:1-13.
  6. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2007. Hydrology and water resources. Fourth assessment report: Climate Change. Working Group II: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Online at http://www.ipcc.ch/ publications_and_data/ ar4/ wg2/ en/ ch10s10-2-4-2.html. Accessed August 19, 2010.
  7. Sheng, Y., L. C. Smith, G. M. MacDonald, K. V. Kremenetski, K. E. Frey, A. A. Velichko, M. Lee, D. W. Beilman, and P. Dubinin. 2004. A high-resolution GIS-based inventory of the West Siberian peat carbon pool. Global Biogeochemistry Cycles 18 (GB3004). doi:10.1029/2003GB002190.
  8. Curtis, G.E., ed. 1996. Topography and drainage. In: Russia: A country study. Washington, DC: Library of Congress. Online at http://countrystudies.us/ russia/ 23.htm. Accessed August 20, 2010.
  9. NASA Earth Observatory. 2008. West Siberia Plain. Greenbelt, MD. Online at http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/ IOTD/ view.php?id=6160. Accessed August 20, 2010
  10. Irish Peatland Conservation Council. 2000. Peatlands around the World: Russia—Siberia. Lullymore, Rathangan. Online at http://www.ipcc.ie/ wpsiberia.html. Accessed August 20, 2010
  11. Izrael, Y., A.V. Pavlov, Y.A. Anokhin, L.T. Mia, and B.G. Sherstiukov. 2006: Statistical evaluation of climate change on permafrost terrain in the Russian Federation. Meteorology and Hydrology 5:27-38.
  12. Pavlov, A.V. 1996. Permafrost-climate monitoring of Russia: Analysis of field data and forecast. Polar Geography 20:44-64.
  13. Kurz, W.A., M.J. Apps, S.J. Beukema, and T. Lekstrum. 1995. 20th century carbon budget of Canadian forests. Tellus, 47:170-177.
  14. Conard, S.G., and G.A. Ivanova. 1997. Wildfire in Russian boreal rorests: Potential impacts of fire regime characteristics on emissions and global carbon balance estimates. Environmental Pollution 98:305-313.
  15. International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska at Fairbanks. 2005. Arctic climate impact assessment: Impacts of a warming Arctic, executive summary. Cambridge University Press.
  16. Highfield, R. 2007. Siberian forest fires due to climate change. Telegraph, August 1.
  17. Lawrence, D.M., and A.G. Slater. 2005. A projection of severe near-surface permafrost degradation during the 21st century. Geophysical Research Letters 32:1-5.
  18. Jorgenson, M.T., C.H. Racine, J.C. Walters, and T.E. Osterkamp. 2001. Permafrost degradation and ecological changes associated with a warming climate in central Alaska. Climatic Change 48:551-579
  19. Nelson, F.E., A.H. Lachenbruch, M.-K. Woo, E.A. Koster, T.E. Osterkamp, M.K. Gavrilova, and G. Cheng. 1993. Permafrost and changing climate. In: Proceedings of the sixth international conference on permafrost, vol. 2. Wushan, Guangzhou: South China University of Technology Press, pp. 987-1005.
  20. Forster, P., V. Ramaswamy, P. Artaxo, T. Berntsen, R. Betts, D.W. Fahey, J. Haywood, J. Lean, D.C. Lowe, G. Myhre, J. Nganga, R. Prinn, G. Raga, M. Schulz, and R. Van Dorland. 2007. Changes in atmospheric constituents and in radiative forcing, table 2.14. In: Climate change 2007: The physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, edited by S. Solomon, D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller. Cambridge University Press.
  21. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2010. Methane. Washington, DC. Online at http://www.epa.gov/ methane/. Accessed online August 11, 2010.
  22. The emissions scenarios referred to here—from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—are the high-emissions path known as A1FI, and the low-emissions path known as B1. Emissions over the past several years have followed the high-emissions path.
  23. ACIA. 2004. Impacts of a warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. Cambridge University Press. Online at http://www.acia.uaf.edu.
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