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March-April 2011

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The russian inferno of 2010

Summer 2010 brought the onset of a severe heat wave across almost all of Eurasia. It started in late May, when Pakistan reported an all-time record high of 128.3°F at Mohenjo-daro along the fertile Indus River. If properly verified by the World Meteorological Organization, this would be the hottest temperature ever recorded in Asia. In mid June, the heat spread to the Middle East region. Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia all observed temperatures of 126 to 127°F, establishing all-time record highs. At Basra, Iraq, which recorded 126°F, water and electrical shortages led to riots, which killed one and injured three when police fired into a crowd.

More than 4,000 miles across the continent, Russia's far eastern district observed its all-time high on June 25, with 108°F at Belogorsk. Instead of fading away, the heat migrated north and focused on western Russia. An Associated Press story on July 15 described the hot weather and wildfires breaking out in Russia, but was paired with photos of bikini-clad sunbathers, illustrating how residents were making the most of an uncomfortable situation.

As August arrived, the picture had changed entirely. The heat had reached epic proportions and the extreme weather had spiraled into a major national crisis. Nearly 400 square miles were burning. The village of Verkhnyaya Vereya, about 180 miles east of Moscow, made national headlines after fire roared through on July 29, leaving all residents homeless, while 250 miles away flames from a different fire reached the suburbs of Voronezh, a city the size of Detroit. Days later, Moscow residents woke up on a Wednesday morning smelling acrid smoke in the air. What should have been a bright summer morning gave way to a dark, sickly fog. Domodedovo Airport reported 1/8th of a mile visibility in haze and smoke, and Muscovites endured their morning commute with headlights and masks. By afternoon, skies remained dark and the dense smoke hung on, yet temperatures soared to 99°F.

Caption: Photograph from Aqua satellite showing the devastated region southeast of Moscow. One of the hardest hit towns was Verkhnyaya Vereya (labelled) where 341 houses were destroyed, prompting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to visit the next day in a show of support. The smoke plumes show as dirty gray, while pyrocumulus and pyrocumulonimbus clouds appear as bright white clouds co-located with the fires. Satellite-sensed heat sources, each a potential wildfire, is shown with small red squares. This satellite image was taken on July 29, 2010.

Recipe for Disaster

Russia's wildfire problems are not unprecedented. The country experiences an average of about 30,000 wildfires each year. Most of these occur in the country's vast uninhabited taiga regions, where they burn out before reaching any villages. However 2010's fires were unique because they occurred much farther south and west than usual, affecting some of Russia's largest cities and bringing the Russian government's forest management and emergency services under serious public scrutiny.

Caption: Front end of forest-peat fire fighting near Roshal.

Russia's 2010 disaster was foreshadowed by an intense heat wave. In early July 2010, temperatures began creeping above seasonal normals, increasing week after week until daily readings soared 20 degrees above normal. It must be remembered that July weather in Moscow is almost identical to that of Montreal, with daily highs in the mid-70s and nighttime temperatures dipping to around 60°F. However by late July 2010, daily highs regularly passed 95°F over vast swaths of western Russia. The hot temperatures were a catalyst for trouble, accelerating evaporation of ground and vegetation moisture.

Caption: A heat wave in the Middle East early in summer 2010 spread north into Russia and the Baltic region, setting the stage for the record-setting fire event. This map shows temperature anomalies for July 2010 in one-degree Celsius bands.

Caption: Temperatures at Moscow's Vnukovo Airport from mid-July to mid-August 2010 (red band) ranged 20 to 25 degrees above normal (blue band). There was no relief from the heat for weeks on end, making it the warmest July for Moscow in 130 years of recordkeeping. On July 29, the official temperature at the official Balchug city observatory near the Kremlin was 102°F, shattering an all-time maximum set 90 years ago.

Russia's weather agency, Roshydromet, officially stated that the 55-day event was the country's worst heat wave in 1,000 years of recorded history. So what weather patterns occurred in the summer of 2010 that contributed to this extreme weather event? Some commentators broadbrushed the event as another example of global warming. But a one-degree global warming trend does not produce a 20-degree temperature spike. Furthermore, much of central Siberia and South America was in the midst of record cold weather. What impacted western Russia was caused by eccentricities in the global circulation in July 2010: anomalies in the sea-surface temperatures, the upper-level waves, and the radiation balance.

The weather maps showed that western Russia spent most of the early summer under the influence of broad high pressure areas. A succession of cool high pressure areas from the Atlantic Ocean moved east and stalled over Russia. Here they stagnated over the parched Russian terrain, gradually turning into very broad, warm pools of desert-like air. Meteorologically, they became subtropical highs, much like the Bermuda high covering the Bahamas and Florida during the summer.

Caption: Weather patterns typical for a major fire event in Russia, as seen 8 August 2010 at 4 pm Moscow Summer Time. Note the widespread 90 and 100 degree temperatures, with dry 40s and 50s dewpoints in many areas south and east of the fire region, owing partly to the Kyzyl Kum desert at the map's lower right corner. Due to the anticyclonic winds around the high pressure area in northern Russia, smoke plumes were transported northwest to Moscow and to the Baltic region.

Upper-level charts reflected this, showing that an upper-level high became established over western Russia on June 20, fading and re-strengthening with renewed vigor from early July through most of August. During this time it remained quasistationary for more than seven weeks. These highs were actually a reflection of the warm air mass, with the low-density air forcing pressure surfaces aloft to higher altitudes. This created a structure very much like the high-pressure areas often seen in the southeastern United States during the summer. And like summertime in the United States, when the storm track is pushed north to Canada, the storm track from Europe went far north, diverting northeast across Scandinavia and into the Arctic Ocean.

Caption: Generalized weather patterns favoring the Russian heat wave of 2010. Atlantic air masses quickly stagnated underneath the upper-level ridge. The clockwise circulation around these weak high pressure areas also had a tendency to bring dry, hot southwest Asian air masses northward into Russia.

Spreading Out of Control

The unusually hot weather dried out much of the vegetation both above and below ground, allowing hundreds of isolated forest fires and grass fires across a vast region—sparked by lightning, cigarettes, trash fires, and other sources—to spread out of control. Unfortunately for fire-fighting efforts this past summer, in January 2007 the Russian government had turned forest management over to underfunded local authorities and private leaseholders, few of which were prepared for any sort of coordinated, large-scale operation. Critics said that the legislation was market driven, padding corporate earnings and eradicating the forest ranger workforce, while supporters cited the need to trim government fat. As a result, firefighting mostly fell on local towns and cities, which were unprepared and unequipped to carry the battle into the countryside where most of the fires started.

Meanwhile, Russia's unique geography brought into play another ingredient. Much of the soil in damp, cold climates consists of a substance called peat; this forms when cold temperatures do not nurture enough microbes to fully break down organic material, so vegetation that dies away simply accumulates as damp layers of dead plant material, then called peat. This peat builds upward at an extremely slow rate over many centuries. Bogs have traditionally been drained of water to mine the peat for fuel and to provide suitable terrain for crop fields.

However, just as dry peat serves as a flammable fuel for cooking, dry peat bogs comprise an immense storehouse of flammable material for wildfires. Unfortunately, many peat marshes near Russia's major cities, including around Moscow, had indeed been drained over a period of time from the 1920s through the 1960s. As a result, wildfires in that area take on a whole new scale of trouble. In the United States, firebreaks are legendary for stopping forest fires, but in Russia, the fire simply smolders through the peat underground and starts new fires in other places. A New York Times story quoted Sergei Andreyev, an emergency responder at the fire in Elektrogorsk, as saying, “Every time you think it's out, it starts smoking again.” The peat fires were so difficult to extinguish that Russian authorities installed a 30-mile emergency pipeline east of Moscow to tap the half-mile-wide Oka River and flood the worst of the peat-field fires.

The Fallout

Both forest fires and burning peat produce substantial amounts of gases like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, both of which are precursors for harmful and irritating photochemical oxidants like ozone and peroxyacetyl nitrate. Wildfires also produce solid particles: soot, composed of impure carbon compounds that are generally toxic. Most soot tends to fall out close to the fire, but smaller particles may be transported great distances. Peat, which is a precursor to coal, also produces very small amounts of sulfur dioxide, a hygroscopic molecule that greatly adds to the haze problem and reduces visibility.

All of these pollutants were swept into Moscow on August 4. Unofficial reports cited visibilities as low as 70 feet in some areas, in other words, approaching the so-called threshold of “zero visibility.” Elena Lezina, an official air quality spokesperson, reported, “Air pollution surged four to ten times [above maximum safe levels]…a new high.” By August 8, the smoke had failed to clear out, and news wires indicated that Moscow “went into a near shut-down,” with streets and cafés empty and schools canceling classes.

Caption: This image depicts the density of airborne solid particles based on satellite measurements of ultraviolet radiation. Areas of dark brown are very high in aerosols, indicating smoke, soot, and haze. Here, plumes containing soot have spread northward into arctic regions from the fires in southwest Russia.

Caption: Upper-level chart for August 5, 2010 at 3 pm Moscow Time. This shows the seemingly permanent upper-level high over Moscow, showing a geopotential height value of a rather stout 592 decameters. This is typically associated with very warm tropical air masses. The ribbonlike appearance from central Europe to Scandinavia indicates the jet stream position and the prevailing steering current for frontal systems.

Wildfires also cause a unique phenomenon to occur: pyrocumulus and pyrocumulonimbus clouds. These are structurally identical to that of their regular namesakes cumulus and cumulonimbus, except that the buoyant updraft air gets its heat mostly from the forest fire rather than from preexisting low-level air. Though pyrocumulonimbus has been recognized for decades for exacerbating fires with lightning strikes, meteorologists have also come to realize that pyrocumulonimbus clouds are responsible for most of the anomalous layers of haze in the stratosphere. In decades past these were ascribed to distant volcanic eruptions, but they are now known to result from winds carrying off the tops of smoke-laden storm clouds.

The fallout from the Russian heat wave and wildfire event came in terms not only of particulates but also in human, economic, and political costs. The fires themselves killed at least 54, and many thousands of homes were destroyed. The heat wave is estimated to have claimed at least 15,000 lives, consisting mostly of elderly and sick residents who succumbed to dehydration, heat stress, and other complications, and economic losses were estimated at US$15 billion.

The fires quickly caused a crisis in the Russian government. President Dmitry Medvedev interrupted his vacation and returned to Moscow to deal with the fire, sacking several top military officials after a fire tore across the flightline at Kolomna Naval Base, about 60 miles southeast of Moscow. Critics in Russia were quick to place blame, accusing top officials in the federal government of playing games of showmanship and mismanagement. There were also allegations that firefighter divisions were diverted at local levels to protect properties owned by the wealthy and powerful. The Reuters news agency also reported that doctors were hesitant to diagnose weather-related illnesses, fearful that government officials might seek their dismissal. A doctor at one major hospital told Reuters that senior management issued instructions not to link illnesses with the heat wave.

Caption: Smog over Moscow after wildfires in the summer of 2010

Economically, almost a third of Russia's grain crop was destroyed, forcing the Russian government to ban grain exports. To add further insult to injury, Russian farmers had to plant their winter wheat in dry soil. Combined with production shortages around the globe, world grain prices soared to a 27-month high. Analysts reported that this is already being felt throughout the United States and around the world at the grocery checkout line due to increased food production costs.

There was some good to come out of the tragedy. Victims who lost homes received new houses at government expense. In September the Russian parliament moved to roll back the 2007 legislation, setting aside $250 million for forest management and creating a bill to establish an airborne response agency for 2011. There are also calls for the government to flood dry peat bogs, a plan that would cost close to $1 billion. If implemented, it would return many of Russia's ecosystems to their original state, removing a key ingredient contributing to Russia's fire danger.

TIM VASQUEZ is a meterologist residing in Norman, Oklahoma, with his wife Shannon, a former NSSL researcher and NWS programmer. Tim forcasted weather in the U.S. Air Force during the 1990s and still remains active as a weather writer and software developer.

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