EcoAlert: “The Hottest Summer in a 1,000 Years” – Will Extreme Climate Change Russia’s Future?

Dn19304-2_300 While Kremlin leaders are grappling with Russia's deadliest wildfires since 1972 and a drought that has destroyed crops after what weather monitoring officials say was the country's hottest summer in a millennium, fires have scorched forests contaminated with radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Fears of swirling up nuclear pollution from the Chernobyl disaster could take the climate crisis to a new level, though officials said radiation levels were normal in Moscow and it was unclear if smoke from fires in contaminated forests could be dangerous.

"Yes, there have been fires," Vasily Tuzov, deputy director of Russia's forest protection agency, told Reuters by telephone when asked if there had been fires in forests polluted by the Chernobyl accident, the world's worst civil nuclear disaster. He refused to give more details about the fires, referring to a statement on the agency's website which said that fires covering an area of 39 square kilometres (15 square miles) had been registered in regions with forests polluted with radiation.

The regions affected included Bryansk province, which borders Ukraine southwest of Moscow and was polluted by radioactive dust that billowed across Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Europe after a series of explosions at Chernobyl's reactor No. 4 on April 26, 1986. Russian Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Aug. 5 that in the event of a fire in forests in the Bryansk region, radioactive particles could be propelled into the air. 

Greenpeace Russia said in a statement that 3 fires had been registered in badly contaminated forests in the Bryansk region, which was polluted with the nuclear isotope caesium 137.

Radiation levels in the Moscow region were unchanged and within normal limits on Thursday, said on Yelena Popova, the head of Moscow's radiation monitoring centre.

Asked whether fires in the areas contaminated by Chernobyl could bring radioactive particles in the Moscow region, she said the risk was still "theoretical". "There is a possibility that winds could bring contaminated air from Kaluga or Tula regions if major fires erupt there," she said, referring to two Russian provinces a little under 200 km (125 miles) southwest of Moscow that were also polluted by Chernobyl.

The heat and smoke in Moscow — which sent pollution levels to the highest levels in decades — almost doubled mortality rates in the capital and disrupted flights, consumer activity and even trading in Russian stocks and bonds.

Muscovites were greeted with a glimpse of clear skies on Wednesday after a thunderstorm accompanied by strong winds in the early hours dispersed the smoke.

The Emergencies Ministry said the area of burning forests in Russia was almost halved in the past 24 hours to 927 square km (358 square miles) from 1,740 square km (676 square miles), and that nearly 166,000 people were fighting more than 600 fires. The Russian heatwave is blamed for nearly 800 wildfires, more than 500 of which are still burning. Moscow's health department chief said earlier this week that the heat and smoke from the fires has doubled the city's daily death rate.

Russia has sweltered under an intense heatwave since mid-July, recording its highest ever temperatures. The heat has caused widespread drought, ruined crops and encouraged wildfires that have blanketed Moscow in smog and now threaten key nuclear sites. According to the head of Moscow's health department, the city's daily death rate has doubled – up to 700 from the usual average of 360 to 380.

The primary cause  of the nation's severe heat is a "blocking event" – a static atmospheric pattern that has trapped a high-pressure bubble over western Russia since mid-July, pulling in hot air from Africa.

The climatic pattern known as El Niño may also be a factor. Around the new year, the eastern tropical Pacific heated up, sending a slow-moving waves of heat around the globe.

There is a large body of evidence to suggest that climate change increases the number of heatwaves and make them longer. Since 1880 the frequency of extremely hot days has nearly tripled and the length of heatwaves across Europe has doubled. Models also predict that climate change will push up peak temperatures faster than average temperatures.The number of very hot days is forecast to increase fivefold by 2100. One model study has suggested that Paris, France, will see the frequency of heatwaves grow by 31 per cent over the century, and that by 2100 they will last twice as long.

The consequences will be widespread. Agricultural yields are likely to drop, and summer death rates will rise worldwide. True, winter death rates will drop during milder winters, but this will not offset the extra summer deaths.

The Russian heatwave might have occurred without help from greenhouse gases. The only certainty is that such events are more likely in a warmer world.

Burning peat and vegetation produces smoke rich in tiny airborne particles. However, Frank Kelly, director of environmental research at King's College London, says the smoke isn't as dangerous as the industrial smog seen in most cities. Traffic pollution tends to contain more metals, which react to produce damaging free radicals in the lungs.

Although some of the pollutants, such as benzene, cause cancer, they are in tiny amounts in this type of smoke, says Kelly. What's more, cancer becomes a concern only after months or even years of exposure. Still, the sheer volume of pollutants, including benzene, means they pose a real risk – of worse symptoms and even death – to asthmatics and those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Kelly thinks the scorching temperatures are behind around three-quarters of the reported deaths. With temperatures hitting 40 °C, the elderly and very young, who find it harder to control body temperature, are particularly at risk: when blood vessels expand to lose heat, blood pressure drops, decreasing blood supply to the brain. In extreme heat, vulnerable people are at risk of fainting or even slipping into a coma.

How much longer will it last?

We just don't know. "These events can last for many days, or even many weeks in exceptional cases," says Paul Williams of the University of Reading, UK. "For example, the 2003 European heatwave lasted from June until August."

The end could be sudden. "If the weather changes its mind, the pattern can break just like that," says Knight.

Even if the current blocking event breaks sooner rather than later, there is always the possibility that another will come along. They are more common in summer than in winter, and difficult to predict. "They are like buses," says Williams. "Sometimes a long time will go by without one, and then two will come along in quick succession."

Will it happen again?

The same exact circumstances may not recur any time soon, but more heatwaves are inevitable, even without climate change. "Variations in atmospheric circulation happen spontaneously," says Knight. "It will happen again."

Blocking events are not restricted to Russia. This one also helped trigger the floods in Pakistan and may even be behind the torrential rain in China that led to a deadly landslide. Another blocking event triggered the unusually hot temperatures in the eastern seaboard of the US in early July.

Climate change will continue to push temperatures upwards and make heatwaves both more frequent and more severe. Counter intuitively, while western Russia has roasted in record-breaking temperatures, more easterly regions like Siberia have been subjected to continual flows of cold air and have actually been several degrees below the average temperature for the time of year.

Casey Kazan 

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