Fires, floods, bugs challenge Russia's stance on climate crisis

Russian response to threats has been slow

By Mary Ilyushina and Frederik Pleitgen, CNN
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

MOSCOW - Landing in Yakutsk, six time zones east of Moscow, the first thing you see and smell is thick, acrid smoke.

This is one of the coldest inhabited places on Earth, and just one of the dozens of Russian cities choked by the wildfires that have been ravaging the Arctic this season at unprecedented levels.

"These past weeks it's been impossible to breathe, the smoke is coming from the woods all around us, so we were all warned to stay inside," said Murtaz, a local taxi driver who declined to give his second name, as he drove past a lookout point of the smog-filled city. "But the bugs are the worst -- literally hundreds of them are fleeing the fire and swarming all over you."

Alaska and Canada have also been affected by wildfires. But in Russia the smoke from thousands of kilometers of burning forest has spread over almost half of the country and even reached the west coast of the United States.

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Fires in Siberian taiga forests happen annually, but they now have global implications. In the last three years alone, the area affected by forest fires has tripled, spewing megatons of greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere, according to official Russian estimates.

So as Siberia heats up, it has potential to accelerate global warming. But the Russian response has been slow. Authorities here at first decided not to put the fires out unless they pose a direct threat to settlements as it would be "economically unsound." In other words, local budgets were too constrained.

Complicating matters is the extraordinary logistical burden of working in the vast, undeveloped expanses of eastern Russia. Getting to hard-to-reach forest fires requires a lot of people, aircraft and fuel.

But forest fires are only one part of the cascading effects of climate change. Rising global temperatures, scientists say, are tied to deforestation. Timber is a major Russian export, particularly to resource-hungry China. But as loggers move in, environmental activists say their clearcutting allows vital topsoil to wash away, weakening the ability of the earth to hold extra moisture -- and making the region vulnerable to flooding.

Northern parts of the Irkutsk region were hit by wildfires before its southern areas could recover from deadly floods which took 25 lives and displaced over 30,000 people this June.

The area hasn't experienced floods this strong in years, and is not used to having them this time of the year either. Researchers at Irkutsk State University said the flooding was caused by "anomalous atmospheric processes taking place amid global and regional climate change," warning that Siberia is bound to experience even more weather extremes in the future.

Climate change at the 'Gateway to Hell'

While the surface of eastern Russia is on fire and flooding, its foundation is literally melting away. Two thirds of the country sit on permafrost, which is degrading rapidly, puncturing places like the Yakutia region with giant sinkholes.

The biggest known one is the Batagai crater, another thousand kilometers north of Yakutsk. Locals dubbed the gaping hole in the permafrost the "Gateway to Hell."

Global climate change is often imperceptible. But at the Batagai sinkhole, you can witness the effects in near-real time.

What sounds like heavy rain from afar is in fact water streaming down the walls of a giant black glacier. This is the sound of melting permafrost. Cracking is audible as ice and frozen earth break loose and falling hundreds of meters from the edges of the crater.

"At first we thought that some meteorite fell here but turns out it was all human factor," says local resident Erel Struchkov. "It used to be a logging area, then people made a little pathway, which turned into a little creek and then, bit by bit, it grew into this massive thing."

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And it keeps growing -- about 10-15 meters sink each year. The locals are worried it might envelop their village, and that other holes could endanger more populated areas, where much of the infrastructure sits precariously on permafrost.

"This is massive social issue," said Alexander Fedorov, the lead scientist at Yakutsk Permafrost Institute. "The infrastructure -- buildings, gas lines, water pipes, railroads, roads -- is decaying which comes at a big cost."

And that's where the forest fires are also raising alarms. According to Fedorov, areas where the permafrost sits under trees -- both untouched -- are much less prone to degradation.

Dependence on fossil fuels

Russian President Vladimir Putin has already ordered the military to send planes and helicopters to help fight the inferno. The fires even took on a geopolitical dimension last week, after US President Donald Trump also offered to send help.

For now, the Russian government is tentatively acknowledging the effects of climate change. Putin paid a visit to Irkutsk flood victims on his way to the G20 summit in Osaka in June, where he delivered a message about climate change.

"I want to remind you that in Russia we are warming 2.5 times faster than the rest of the planet. This is a serious challenge to us. We must understand this," Putin said. "Hence the floods and the melting of permafrost in areas where we have big settlements. We need to understand how to respond to the climate change happening there."

Standing up to this challenge would require an environmental policy to cut dependence on fossil fuels -- a cornerstone of the Russian economy.

But a summer of wildfires and flooding may be changing the way Russians feel about action on climate change.

"We need to lessen the human impact. When climate change meets human factor, the effect is colossal," Fedorov said. "If we don't cut down the forests, if we don't cause fires the permafrost can be more stable... The point of no return is almost here, we are at a critical point already when it comes to permafrost."

This story has been updated.

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