The other new normal: A record 38C and forest fires in the Arctic


While Europe learns to live with the new normal imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, this weekend the town of Verkhoyansk in Siberia reached 38 degrees Celsius – a record temperature locally, and possibly a record for the Arctic Circle.

The episode of exceptional heat, which was concentrated primarily in Siberia but extended to other polar regions, has fuelled forest fires in the North Pole.

As global temperatures continue to rise, this is the ‘other’ new normal facing the Arctic.

The temperature in Verkhoyansk, like in many places in this part of the world, is subject to fluctuations. In winter, it’s one of the coldest places on the planet, with temperatures dropping as low as -50 degrees Celsius, but at this time of the year it is usually around 20 degrees Celsius. Alarmingly, this is almost half of what was recorded on Saturday.

However for scientists, this record temperature isn’t the most concerning issue.

The bigger problem is that Siberia has had months of above normal temperatures, as the Climate Change Service of the European Copernicus network recently showed.

This heatwave, overshadowed somewhat by the COVID-19 pandemic, is a sign of accellerating climate change, according to the United Nations.

“It’s certainly an alarming sign,” said Freja Vamborg, senior scientist at the Copernicus Climate Change Service. She said it is not surprising because global warming fluctuates and the polar regions are undergoing more rapid changes than the rest of the planet, but what is unusual is the weather “has persisted with warmer than average anomalies”.

Some of the consequences have been the early melting of some of the region’s rivers, two or three weeks earlier than normal. These melting events can have catastrophic consequences. The melting permafrost in Norilsk was considered partly to blame for the recent fuel spill in Norilsk.

The melting of permafrost is a particularly difficult challenge for Russia, which has built many towns and oil and gas infrastructure on frozen ground, which was at the time considered stable.

As climate change causes permafrost to melt, it releases greenhouse gases, mainly methane, which in turn feeds the acceleration of climate change.

Both Copernicus and NASA data co-indicate the December-May period as the warmest ever recorded in the region in a historical series dating back to 1880.

An accelerated fire season

Another consequence of these extreme temperatures is the proliferation of fires in these remote and hard-to-reach areas.

The latest data from the Atmospheric Monitoring Service of Copernicus show that the radiation emitted by the fires is much higher than the usual average for this time of year.

If the trend continues, 2020 will go down in history as the year with the worst fires in the region. June’s emissions already exceed those of 2019, as revealed on Twitter by Parrington, a senior scientist at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.

The smoke from the fires occupies hundreds of kilometres as shown by satellite images obtained by experts. No less than 1,500 kilometres according to some estimates.

Last season was already marked by an unprecedented wave of fires in Siberia, but they did not start so soon or burn with such intensity.

Some of the fires are really spectacular, as this image obtained by the expert Pierre Markuse shows. The map is about 37 kilometres long.

The high temperatures in the Arctic Circle are not limited to Siberia, although that is where they have been most extreme for months. Northeastern Canada and Scandinavia are also experiencing an exceptionally warm late spring and early summer, and the first major fires are beginning to spread.

According to the meteorological models this exceptional heat in Siberia will be maintained at least for the next two weeks.

This situation is also causing an accelerated melting of the Arctic Ocean bordering Siberia, at historic lows for this time of year.



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