For Peat’s Sake: Record Temperatures And Wildfires In Eastern Russia Drive Amplifying Carbon-Cycle Feedback

Warming-driven peatland fires are an amplifying climate feedback. Credit: NASA

News story via NASA

Forests and bog land in far eastern Russia have been burning since the beginning of June 2012. Contributing to the record fires have been the record temperatures of this past summer. This summer in Siberia has been one of hottest on record. The average temperature ranged around 93 degrees Fahrenheit and there doesn’t seem to be any break in the weather coming anytime soon.

The fires in eastern Russia have affected the districts of Krasnoyarsk, Tuva, Irkutsk, Kurgan, and the Republic of Khakassia. Especially hard hit is the city of Tomsk. According to official figures, over 24,000 acres of land had been burnt in Tomsk by early August. The city has been covered by heavy smog for weeks and the airport has been out of operation since the beginning of July.

On August 23rd, the Russian Information and News Agency (RIA Novosti) reported that “firefighters extinguished all six forest fires over the past 24 hours that remained raging in Russia’s Siberia this summer, the regional forestry department said in a statement on Thursday. There are no more registered fires in the region, but the emergencies situation still remain in force in three areas of the Tomsk region due to the high risk of new wildfires outbreak,” the statement added. However, it also reported that “more than 200,000 hectares [494.210 acres] of forest already burned down in Siberia and the Russian Far East, where fires are still raging, since the start of the summer.” On August 28, RIA Novosti reported that: “The majority of wildfires triggered by the summer heat wave in Russia have been put out, but 11 wildfires with a total area of 838 hectares [over 2000 acres] are still raging in Khabarovsk Territory.” These are the fires that still burn in the image taken today by the MODIS instrument on the Aqua satellite.

Of course wildfires are devastating to any area, but ecologically this is catastrophic for this region with many rare animals living in Siberia’s unique ecosystem.

So too the fires burning in Russia will have worldwide effects as the torched peat bogs whose layers consist of dead plant materials will end up releasing large quantities of carbon dioxide into the air accelerating the greenhouse effect and making the air nearly unbreathable. Record numbers of fires in the summer of 2010 drew attention to this damaging situation (see NY Times article cited below).

In the early 1900’s Soviet engineers drained swamps to supply peat for electrical power stations. It was eventually stopped in the 1950’s but the bogs were never reflooded. Unfortunately, that approach is currently causing some of the wildfire problems and air quality issues that Russia is dealing with today.

Officials and residents are hoping that the upcoming expected harvest rains will help extinguish the wildfires and bring a much needed natural remedy to the affected regions.

NASA/Goddard, Lynn Jenner with information from The New York Times and RIA Novosti (

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31 Responses to For Peat’s Sake: Record Temperatures And Wildfires In Eastern Russia Drive Amplifying Carbon-Cycle Feedback

  1. >>>> Of course wildfires are devastating to any area …

    From an anthropocentric vantage point, perhaps, but not an ecological one.

  2. eric.s says:

    “the fires burning in Russia will have worldwide effects as the torched peat bogs whose layers consist of dead plant materials will end up releasing large quantities of carbon dioxide into the air accelerating the greenhouse effect”

    But isnt CO2 from burning woody biomass considered carbon neutral? What CO2 the plant takes in over its life is simply put back. This is the perceived climate change BENEFIT of combusting biomass. So, what is the difference here, if there is one? Why is this considered a contributor to the climate change problem when biomass power plants arent?

    Can anyone shed some light for me?

  3. John Thomas says:

    Not if it’s peat from tens of thousands of years ago to the present.

    Wood burning can only be CO2 neutral if we have equivalent wood growing at the same CO2 absorption rate as that emitted by the burning.

  4. winterseeker says:

    The difference for all things climate change (particularly in regards to a feedback loop) are, and always will be in regards to the timescale. If the carbon being released from this burning peat was done so at the same rate at which it was accumulated (in other words if it burned ridiculously slowly for thousands of years) THEN and then only would it be carbon neutral. Due to climate change and our not-so-pleasant influences, the rate at which all of this carbon is being released, whether from coal (which took millions of years to build), methane (tens of thousands of years) or peat/forests (hundreds to thousands of years) is so rapid in comparison to when it was accumulated the current atmosphere cannot handle the dramatic change. And thus the cycle destructively feeds back, just like a firestorm feeds itself. If we don’t dramatically reverse this trend of carbon outpouring from virtually every carbon pool then the current atmosphere will have to handle millions of years worth of atmospheric carbon at once…that is not neutral – it is sheer catastrophe.

  5. Some European says:

    You make a good point. Here are my two cents.
    The difference lies in whether you consider the full cycle or not, and if there’s even a possibility of closing the cycle.
    If you have a plantation of fast growing trees and you wait for them to grow as they take up CO2, to burn them later, the process is (likely) neutral.
    If on the contrary you were to burn, say, the whole Amazon, it’s not sure the forest would grow back on human timescales, so you’d get a one-time transfer of carbon from the biosphere to the atmosphere.
    In a way, a large forest fire temporarily diminishes the total size of the biosphere, which does have a real impact on the greenhouse effect, even though the carbon will eventually be reabsorbed in about two decades.
    Right now, there are far too many fires in the world, causing the carbon flow to be permanently out of balance.

  6. justin says:

    All captured carbon is captured by plants – its a question of how long ago this was. If you burn leaves that fall in autumn, you are releasing carbon that was only taken out over the past summer. If you burn coal or oil, which is carbon that was trapped by plants millions of years ago (some of which was eaten by dinosaurs, some of that was breathed out again as C02), you are shifting the balance. There are large amounts of CO2 that are stored long term, some short term, and some medium term. The longer the carbon has been stored, the more ‘alien’ it is to the present atmosphere. Peat bogs have stored carbon for .. how long? That is the relevant question.

  7. Tami Kennedy says:

    The point of the cycle is key. The cycle without the swamp allows the green material to fully decay. So plant grows, takes in co2, dies, decays and releases co2. In this instance the material held in the bog isn’t fully decayed (and decay slowed) thus has co2 sequestered. Essentially co2 out of the normal cycle. Keep sequestering and bury and add a few millions of year under buried pressure = coal.

  8. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Peat fires:
    FFF feeeeedbaaaack
    Arctic melting:
    FFF feeeeedbaaaack

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    What, precisely, is your own ‘ecological point of view’. That a massive climate destabilisation, occurring very rapidly, and causing a mass extinction, including, very likely, our own species, is no big deal? Ecologically, it seems, to my dilettantish eye, that Dame Nature enjoys a fair degree of stability, when biodiversity reaches its greatest breadth and extent, and prefers change to be gradual. The only creatures who seem to welcome rapid destabilisation are the denialist genocidaires and ecocidal maniacs.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Peat CO2 is like coal CO2, in that it was laid down thousands of years ago, from vegetation that extracted CO2 from the atmosphere over centuries and millennia. Biomass grown today extracts CO2 from today’s atmosphere so is carbon neutral in terms of adding more CO2 to the atmosphere.

  11. Fire is a natural part of temperate forest ecosystems, regenerating forests, not ‘devastating’ them. [Logging (and grazing and road building and mining and fire suppression) are the true devastators of forest ecosystems.]

    In addition, fire hysteria (and the alleged inevitability of uncontrollable fires following current beetle outbreaks) is being used by timber interests and their land manager lackeys to log the last special places on our public lands. So to me, any careless statement bad-mouthing wildfire is giving aid and comfort to these public lands parasites.

  12. Paul Klinkman says:

    Tundra fires create heat. The heat of the fire goes deep into the ground. The heat quickly melts permafrost below the burned out acreage, permafrost that hasn’t melted in millions of years.

    Melted permafrost releases huge amounts of methane. There’s the real problem. Don’t worry so much about the released carbon dioxide as the released methane.

  13. sarah says:

    typo (tiny but significant):
    494.210 acres should be 494,210 acres.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I couldn’t possibly argue with your observation that fire is natural in these ecosystems, and your opinions regarding the forestry interests, but surely the current situation, with rising incidence and severity of mega-fires worldwide, including peat fires, and the global mass tree death from numerous causes related to climate destabilisation and other ecological disasters, is not ‘normal’ any longer. Do you doubt that the ecology of temperate forests and the incidence and damage done by megafires is outside the natural parameters of the last few thousand years? If that is true, which is my opinion, then surely this is a sign of ecological imbalance, and one that is rapidly worsening.

  15. Your valid points about the circumstances of the Siberian fires are not what I criticized. I highlighted the careless phrase that I objected to used in the article:

    >>>> Of course wildfires are devastating to any area …

    which is false as a general proposition, as well as unnecessary to the article. Sloppy language about fires (and beetles) helps no one.

  16. Spike says:

    In the UK the carbon from our extensive peat bogs is being slowly released by drainage, drying out, cutting, horticulture, agriculture and planned burning (for grouse shoots).

  17. Mike Roddy says:

    Brian, you’re right about fires, of course. I wish more people knew this basic information. Here’s a stat for you: After a clearcut, 85% of the site carbon goes up into the atmposphere within a few years. In the case of a fire, it’s almost the opposite: about 80% of the carbon is retained onsite.

    Intuition and media disinformation says the opposite, of course.

  18. Joan Savage says:

    Peat is not the only organic soil drying out and burning. Muck soil underwent spontaneous combustion near Bucyrus, Ohio.

  19. Greatgrandma Kat says:

    Methane is the double-shot gas, it’s 33% better at increasing temps than CO2 in the short term (20 years) THEN it decays into CO2 staying in the atmosphere for 100’s.We will know by 2015, the way feedbacks are kicking in, just how wrong we have been about the speed with which nature is capable of reacting to mans handywork.

  20. Gail says:

    The unmentionable is right there in the graph. SMOG. Ozone leading to “loss of biodiversity”. Loss of biodiversity means that, regardless of excess heat and drought from climate change which exacerbate its damage, air pollution is killing vegetation. Typically it weakens the immune system of plants, as well as directly injures tissue and root systems. This leaves trees vulnerable to biotic attacks – from insects, disease and fungus.

    It’s not a coincidence that trees are dying everywhere around the world, even in places that have, on average, had an increase in precipitation, and the lower latitudes that haven’t warmed nearly as much as the high latitudes.

    You can’t see ozone, but then, you can’t see oxygen or CO2 either. The constant background level is increasing and that is what is behind all the trees falling, the power outages and property damage and loss of life…and the wildfires burning out of control.

  21. Mark E says:

    I wonder how much of the soot is settling on arctic sea ice, where it would reduce the albedo, thus increasing melting further?

  22. Joan Savage says:

    The Russian fires are burning in the mid-latitudes (Tomsk is 54N), so it matters how high altitude the soot rises in the atmosphere if it were to settle on sea ice well over a 1000 km away from the fires.

  23. Paul Klinkman says:

    Sea ice, not so much. The stuff melts off every summer now. Ice sheets, absolutely! Once soot lands on top it increases the ice sheet’s heat absorption, and as the top of the ice sheet melts the soot particles stay stuck on top of the ice sheet almost perpetually. The melted water oozes away molecule by molecule. A layer of new snow eventually covers the soot layer, but these days the top layer of snow melts off each summer, exposing the heat-absorbing layer of soot.

  24. Mike Roddy says:

    Plantation forestry is CO2 intensive. See my comment above, and check the literature.

  25. Leif says:

    The soot also accumulates on the surface from year to year. Ever look at a large pile of snow scrapings after it has been allowed to melt for a few months? It is hard to tell from dirt.

  26. DRT says:

    Mike, Have you got a link to a source for those stats. I’d like to understand that better.

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Ah, I see. Sorry to misconstrue your point. It is plain, on re-reading, and, of course, you are correct.

  28. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    In Tasmania the forest mafiosi bomb the clear-felled forest with napalm, to ensure a nice blaze. And they poison the wildlife with 1080 poison, which causes an agonizing death, in order to stop them eating the new growth. They clear-cut right up to streams, despite being supposed to leave corridors on either bank.

  29. Lou Grinzo says:

    Over a 100 year timeframe methane is 25 times (not percent) worse than CO2. Over short timeframes, like 20 years, it’s much higher — something like 70 times worse.

  30. Mark Ziegler says:

    Permafrost Methane needs to be monitored more closely.