Siberia is on Fire With Arctic Temperatures Reaching 100 Degrees: Why?

On June 20, the town of Verkhoyansk, located six miles north of the Arctic Circe in remote eastern Siberia, recorded a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. If verified by the World Meteorological Organization, this reading would be the warmest temperature on record in the Arctic and also the northernmost reading of 100 degrees.

But while this measurement is extraordinary, being more than 32 degrees above the average for the town, it has not occurred in a vacuum. In fact, many parts of Siberia, the vast Russian region that's larger than the entire United States, have been experiencing abnormally high temperatures for several months accompanied by widespread wildfires.

But what is behind the recent heat, and what are its implications for the region, and indeed the rest of the planet?

Siberia is a huge landmass with the most variable climate in the world and typically, some of the planet's coldest temperatures. Between seasons there are huge swings in temperature, with the mercury commonly falling to lows of -50 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, and often reaching 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the relatively pleasant summers.

Robert Rohde, Lead Scientist at Berkeley Earth, told Newsweek that in addition to large seasonal swings, normal weather in Siberia can also vary rapidly from day-to-day with abrupt heatwaves and cold fronts. Heat waves are not uncommon in the region, although they tend to be short-lived.

Verkhoyansk itself has an average high of -44 degrees Fahrenheit in January, but the town has also experienced plenty of heat waves, with temperatures reaching well into the 90s in previous years, Weather Channel meteorologist Carl Parker told Newsweek. In fact, temperatures in the town reached 99 degrees Fahrenheit in 1988. Despite this, experts say that the Siberian climate in the past few months has been unseasonably warm, starting with a mild winter, followed by a warm spring and hot summer.

"What's unusual is the extraordinary persistence of the heat. The six-month period from December to May is likely far and away the warmest since 1880," Parker said. "And May was 18 degrees above average in northwestern Siberia, also a new record."

From January to May temperatures in Russia as a whole—around 80 percent of which lies in Siberia—averaged 9.5 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.

"That shattered the previous record by 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit, and was the most anomalously warm January to May ever observed in any country's national average," Rohde said.

According to experts, a series of particular weather conditions have contributed to the extreme heat recently seen in Verkhoyansk and other parts of Siberia. A very persistent area of high pressure that has kept cold weather away from Siberia combined with clear skies and the almost constant sunlight normal at high latitudes has played a big part.

Furthermore, the persistent heat has helped to melt snow and ice more quickly, reducing the reflectivity of the ground surface in many parts. The darker ground absorbs more heat, warming the air more rapidly.

However, global warming, which is heating the Arctic at two to three times the rate of the rest of the planet, also plays a key role by raising the temperature of the baseline climate, increasing the chances of extreme heat waves.

"What climate change is doing is moving the distribution of weather events, such that historically low-frequency, extreme events occur more frequently. Had the climate not changed due to man-made greenhouse gases, the heat we've seen in parts of Siberia would have been a 100,000-year event," Parker said.

One of the main reasons for the pronounced effect of Arctic warming is that the loss of ice means less sunlight is being reflected, raising temperatures, although this is not the only factor.

According to Gavin Schmidt from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the rising baseline temperature in the Arctic makes weather conditions exceeding 90 or 100 degrees Fahrenheit more likely in Siberia and other boreal areas.

fires, Siberia
An aerial view taken from onboard a helicopter shows smoke from forest fires rising above the Boguchansky district of Russia's Krasnoyarsk Krai on August 4, 2019. EKATERINA ANISIMOVA/AFP via Getty Images

"Even with the pandemic lockdown we are still adding massive quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and so the human contribution to the greenhouse effect is going to continue until we stop doing so," he told Newsweek.

The extreme heat can increase the risk of wildfires by drying out vegetation, with large areas now burning across Siberia's forest and shrub ecosystems. In the Russian Far East specifically, fire activity to-date this year was the same as 2019 in being about twice the average, and about half of 2011, the most active since 2003, Robert Field, from Columbia University, told Newsweek.

"It is an extreme season in terms of temperature. What we've seen is a complete change in fire regimes," Amber Soja, from NASA's Langley Research Center, told Newsweek. "We've had a lot of extreme fire years in Siberia over the last decades. So it's changed what we think of as normal."

"So if you are looking at the science of climate change, and you are looking at at fire, you would say that climate change is here in the boreal and Arctic environments. It's not in some distant future. The evidence of what is predicted [in climate models] is already here."

An increase in heat waves can also cause the top layers of permafrost, which covers much of Siberia, to thaw more quickly, exposing long-frozen, carbon-rich deposits in some areas that are the perfect fuel for fires. These fires can release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thus exacerbating global warming.

"What's scary about the warming in Siberia is that there are huge quantities of carbon in permafrost, which can be unleashed during periods like this, particularly as fires develop in the region," Parker said.