NASA Images Show Extreme Heat and Fires Raging Across Siberia

NASA's Earth Observatory has released maps and images providing insights into the extraordinary heat that has affected Siberia this year, and the wildfires that are currently raging across the region.

Siberian towns at high latitudes have been experiencing abnormally high temperatures in recent weeks. In fact, a scorching heat wave in the east of the vast Russian region has already produced what may be the hottest temperature ever recorded in the entire Arctic circle.

On Saturday, June 20, the mercury in the small town of Verkhoyansk, 3,000 miles east of Moscow, reached 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Russian weather data, which has yet to be verified.

"This event seems very anomalous in the last hundred years or so," NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies Director Gavin Schmidt said in a statement.

Verkhoyansk experiences some of the coldest temperatures on Earth during the winter. In fact, the mercury plunged to nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit below zero in November, 2019.

But while large portions of Siberia are no stranger to hot summers, Verkhoyansk itself, which is located around six miles north of the Arctic circle, rarely sees temperatures above around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Nevertheless, the forecast for the rest of the week in Verkhoyansk is showing temperatures in the high 80s and low-to-mid 90s—roughly 20 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average high in late June, The Moscow Times reported.

According to the Copernicus Climate Change Service, May was unusually mild in Siberia, with temperatures up to 18 degrees above average recorded in some western parts of the region. In addition, the whole of winter and spring in this area experienced repeated periods of higher-than-average surface air temperatures, particularly from January onwards.

To further illustrate the unusual heat across Siberia this year, the NASA map below—based on data collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument on the agency's Aqua satellite—shows land surface temperature anomalies from March 19 to June 20, 2020. The red areas are locations that were hotter than average for the same period from 2003-2018, while blue areas were colder than average.

land surface temperature anomalies
A map showing land surface temperature anomalies from March 19 to June 20, 2020. The red areas are locations that were hotter than average for the same period from 2003-2018, while blue areas were colder than average. NASA

Furthermore, Russia as a whole experienced its warmest winter in 130 years, The Times reported. And the average heat in Russia from January to May was so high that it roughly matches what climate models predict for the year 2100 if current warming trends continue, according to CBS News meteorologist Jeff Berardelli.

Experts say the extreme heat seen in Verkhoyansk can be explained by a vast high pressure system that is sending the mercury soaring across eastern Siberia, where the town is located.

However, human-driven climate change is causing the Arctic to warm more than two times faster than the average for the rest of the planet. And while heat waves are not new in Siberia, this warming is causing them to become more severe and frequent, Sergey Semenov, from the Yu. A. Izrael Institute of Global Climate and Ecology, Russia, told The Times.

Freja Vamborg, Senior Scientist at the Copernicus Climate Change Service, said that although the planet as a whole is warming, this process is not taking place at the same rate everywhere.

"Western Siberia stands out as a region that shows more of a warming trend with higher variations in temperature. This means that, to some extent, large temperature anomalies are not unexpected. However, what is unusual in this case is how long the warmer-than-average anomalies have persisted for," she said.

The extreme heat in Siberia has provided the perfect conditions for wildfires in the region's forests and shrub ecosystems, with the number of blazes detected in the Russian Far East among the highest observed in any year since 2003—even though it is still early in the fire season—according to data collected by NASA and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) satellites.

Extreme heat waves can melt layers of permafrost, exposing long-frozen, carbon-rich deposits in some areas that are the perfect fuel for fires. The natural-color satellite image below shows the smoke being emitted by several fires in Russia's Sakha region.

wildfires, Siberia
A satellite image captured on June 23, 2020 showing the smoke produced wildfires in the Sakha region of Russian Siberia.