Siberia on fire – every summer

Quest essay by Pasi Autio 14.7.2020

Wildfire, Siberia: 123rf.com

Figure: Natural forest fire in Russia.

Northern hemisphere summer – the season when forest fires in Siberia are on the loop. And usually every single new article about the Siberian forest fires somehow links them to climate change. Therefore it is good time to see how the forest fires has changed during the years. Is there really an increasing trend of Siberia forest fires as the news suggests and what is continuously predicted based on climate models?

With an area of 13.1 million square kilometres (5,100,000 sq mi), Siberia accounts for 77% of Russia’s land area. Majority of the Siberia is sparsely inhabited wilderness with little or no roads. Therefore, what sets on fire, usually burns until rain or other natural factor ends the fire. Southern Siberia also has extensive logging.

Getting reliable fire area data based on available literature seems to be problematic. According to the literature (1) USSR-era fire area data is unreliable and was consistently and severely underreporting fires on sparsely populated areas due to incomplete reporting structure that left most of the country unmonitored (6). The situation was improved only after western satellite data was taken in use by post-USSR Russia. But considering the size of Siberia and the fact that it is very sparsely populated, it is not wonder that no reliable data can be generated without the help of satellites. But even on satellite era some smaller fires goes undetected due to cloud cover or sensor detection limits (6).

After extensive literature study, I found no actual study providing satellite-based dataset for Siberian forest fires for post-USSR era either, which is strange considering how much coverage the Siberian forest fires have got lately. There seem to be an effort going on to create such a dataset for USSR-era years, however, by digitizing old satellite images taken since 1979, but let’s discuss that later a bit more.

Annual burned area in Siberia 1997-2016

Earlier essay I published (topic was Australian bushfires) made use of satellite data based on Giglio et al 2013. Giglio’s paper describes a fourth generation Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED4). This data set combines satellite records like the 500m MODIS burned area maps with active fire data from the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) Visible and Infrared Scanner (VIRS) and the Along-Track Scanning Radiometer (ATSR) family of sensors. This is excellent source to create a dataset also for Siberian fires.

The data is available at globalfiredata.org. Site provides a great analysis tool and of course the data itself, if you want to analyze it further. Currently the dataset provides burned area data for the years 1997-2016. It’s possible to select a region or country and choose several options about the source data from emissions to burned area (among others). The Analysis tools section also gives ability to use custom area shape definition. And that’s what I use to create my Siberia forest fire area dataset.

Figure: Definition of Siberia in use with the presented dataset

The area shapefile used tries to mimic greatest extent of Siberia area definition as closely as possible.

Figure: Siberia annual burned area km2

Figure provides the total burned area in Siberia for each year between 1997 and 2016 in km2. We can see that for last 20 years the burned area trend for Siberia is slightly downwards. No evidence whatsoever can be seen for fires getting any worse. The average burned area annually during that period was ~ 91181 km2 – about the size of Maine.

Years 1998, 2003, 2008 and 2012 were the four most severe fire seasons during this period. In general the inter-annual variability is great (3) with up to 4x differences between years. Forest fires during 2003 were ~ 203288 km2.

USSR-era burned area data

While studying the available literature I found that Stocks and Cahoon had started (ca 2010) a project (3) to digitize old AVHRR satellite images from the period 1979-2000 to build a satellite-based fire-area product for Siberia. This seems to have taken a while since the results of this work has nowhere to be found. The former student of Cahoon, Soja A.J., seems to have continued with this work (4) with Cahoon and Stocks and has presented the results in several conferences during 2018 and 2019. I asked the author whether the data is available for public consumption, but the according to the answer the data is still under validation.

The data is based on different (less sophisticated) instruments, algorithms and methods than GFED4 dataset presented above. Therefore it makes no sense to compare these datasets directly. But for purposes of finding out whether the Siberia forest fires have been getting worse, comparing the trends is interesting. Also, the datasets contain four overlapping years (1997-2000) and using these as a reference we can conclude that burned area on years 1985 and 1987 exceed 1998 and are among the most severe seasons during the satellite era.

The data presented in the conference (4) shows no increasing trend for Siberia burned area either.

In summary when we combine the AVHRR and GFED4 datasets we have 37 years (1979-2016) of burned area data for Siberia. During that time no increasing trend for the forest fires and no detectable signal for “climate change” can be found.

2020 Season fires

As usual, the news outlets are providing worrying stories about the forest fires in Siberia for this season. Greenpeace Russia has provided this piece of information (7):

Greenpeace Russia’s forest programme, which analyses satellite data, said Saturday that a total of 9.26 million hectares—greater than the size of Portugal—have been impacted by wildfires since the beginning of 2020.”

Sounds bad. But how does this 9.26 million hectares (92600 km2) compare to earlier years? Once again, globalfiredata.org Analysis tool provides us this information. Cumulative burned area for Siberia from January to the end of June for selected years in the past:

  • 2003: 15.4 Mha (154205 km2)
  • 2008: 15.5 Mha (155114 km2)

If data provided by Greenpeace is correct (no source to verify it), the start of the 2020 fire season in Siberia has been one of the worst since 1997, but in no means the record.

Summary

  • Siberian forest fires are extensive every summer with up to ~4x variations between the years
  • Average burned area for the Siberia is ~ 91000 km2 / 9.1 Mha / 35200 sq miles – about the size of Portugal
  • Contrary to the climate model predictions, no increased burned area can be found during 1979-2016 for Siberia

Further reading

Russia’s Forests Dominating Forest Types and Their Canopy Density:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272680068_Russia%27s_Forests_Dominating_Forest_Types_and_Their_Canopy_Density

REFERENCES

  1. Giglio, L., J. T. Randerson, and G. R. van der Werf (2013), Analysis of daily, monthly, and annual burned area using the fourth-generation global fire emissions database (GFED4),J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci.,118, 317–328, doi:10.1002/jgrg.20042.
  2. Giglio, L., Boschetti, L., Roy, D.P., Humber, M.L., Justice, C.O., 2018. The collection 6 MODIS burned area mapping algorithm and product. Remote Sens. Environ. 217,72–85. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rse.2018.08.005.
  3. Stocks, Cahoon 2010; Reconstructing Post-1979 Forest Fire Activity and Area Burned in Russia: NOAA AVHRR Analysis https://www.researchgate.net/publication/253580597_Reconstructing_Post1979_Forest_Fire_Activity_and_Area_Burned_in_Russia_NOAA_AVHRR_Analysis_Invited
  4. Historic AVHRR-derived Burned Area product and validation for Siberia (1979 – 2000) https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2019AGUFMGC24C..07S/abstract
  5. Vegetation fires and global change; White paper directed to UN
  6. https://eecentre.org/Modules/EECResources/UploadFile/Attachment/Vegetation-Fires-Global-Change-UN-White-Paper-GFMC-2013.pdf#page=52
  7. Nearly 300 wildfires in Siberia amid record warm weather https://phys.org/news/2020-07-wildfires-siberia-weather.html

Siberia burned area dataset generated from globalfiredata.org:

Annual Burned Area: Area 1 (units: km^2)
area, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016
Area 1, 72515.49, 156759.94, 64566.03, 71509.61, 81478.54, 91947.5, 203288.34, 48805.25, 60614.74, 102303.24, 53793.62, 183118.31, 61870.23, 67793.46, 76604.99, 124019.83, 48602.92, 95504.16, 74647.34, 83883.75
 

Siberia shapefile used the generate the dataset above:

 
{"type":"Feature","properties":{"name":"Area 1"},"geometry":{"type":"MultiPolygon","coordinates":[[[[65.126953125,69.59589006237648],[69.697265625,73.50346063726599],[78.3984375,73.77577986189993],[100.986328125,77.29320180280092],[90.263671875,79.63987399850707],[90,80.7323485464832],[93.955078125,81.55707352166368],[138.25195312499997,76.9007089258869],[180,72.39825525029977],[180,61.683092710640715],[174.90234375,60.50052541051131],[156.181640625,49.38237278700955],[144.755859375,45.82879925192134],[142.91015625,45.583289756006316],[140.2734375,45.89000815866184],[134.736328125,40.97989806962013],[129.0234375,40.245991504199026],[128.14453125,41.83682786072714],[131.044921875,43.004647127794435],[130.95703125,44.96479793033101],[132.978515625,45.213003555993964],[134.6484375,48.45835188280866],[131.044921875,47.81315451752768],[130.4296875,48.922499263758255],[127.705078125,49.61070993807422],[125.94726562499999,52.96187505907603],[123.74999999999999,53.38332836757156],[121.201171875,53.4357192066942],[119.61914062499999,50.233151832472245],[117.7734375,49.61070993807422],[114.60937499999999,50.233151832472245],[112.5,49.32512199104001],[108.720703125,49.38237278700955],[105.46875,50.45750402042058],[102.83203125,50.28933925329178],[102.48046875,51.45400691005982],[98.525390625,51.998410382390325],[97.734375,51.01375465718821],[98.173828125,50.3454604086048],[97.03125,49.724479188712984],[94.833984375,49.95121990866204],[92.28515625,50.736455137010665],[87.71484375,49.03786794532644],[83.232421875,50.90303283111257],[80.33203125,50.792047064406866],[76.46484375,54.213861000644926],[74.1796875,53.54030739150022],[70.83984375,55.07836723201515],[68.818359375,55.429013452407396],[61.34765625,53.904338156274704],[60.55664062499999,51.998410382390325],[58.71093750000001,52.3755991766591],[59.4140625,56.07203547180089],[57.39257812499999,56.07203547180089],[57.48046875,56.84897198026975],[59.23828124999999,58.6769376725869],[58.447265625,59.57885104663186],[59.150390625,60.23981116999893],[59.765625,64.88626540914477],[65.91796875,67.47492238478702],[65.126953125,69.59589006237648]]],[[[-179.99,61.685412536149016],[-179.99,72.3971767678287],[-178.2421875,72.20867825343294],[-168.57421875,66.8265202749748],[-169.453125,64.1297836764257],[-179.99,61.685412536149016]]]]}}
 
You can upload this shapefile to globalfiredata.org analysis tool to replicate the results in this essay.
 

25 thoughts on “Siberia on fire – every summer

  1. Siberia is even worse that Arizona, one a fire starts there is not much one can do to stop it. No roads nothing nearby to aid firefighters. I would in Siberia most fire are so far away from anything they are just allowed to burn until they burn out. Here we had a fire of 200,000 acre the cut if at mainly at the highways and the few roads they could use. There was one primitive rough mountain road that ran through the center of it and in this fire that was useless. Siberia must be much worse millions of kilometers of wilderness with nothing in it.

  2. If the average burned area annually (1997-2016) was 91,181 sqkm (as stated) and the total area is 13.1 mm sqkm, then the average area percentage burned was 0.7%. Assuming that fires do not reburn the same areas (a false assumption) then the entirety of Siberia would burn in 1/.007 = 144 years — if the system was deterministically stable (another false assumption).

    This is an unlikely prediction. First, it is much more likely that historically as much as 5% of Siberian forests burned every year, and that the entirety burned over every 20 years. Historically meaning before modern times back when local indigenous people did the burning.

    [A better way to state the statistics would be using a survival analysis approach: historically the most likely unburned duration or interval between fires for any specific sqkm was 20 years, with a range of 1 to 50 years.]

    It is wrong to assume that Siberia was a wilderness, though it may be one today. Anthropological evidence indicates that Denisovans and Neanderthals occupied Siberia at least 200,000 years ago (possibly as much as 300,000 years ago) and continuously up until 50,000 years ago when they were replaced by modern humans. All those hominids had fire and used it to burn their landscapes (Siberia) for a variety of survival reasons.

    The historical anthropogenic fire regime is (mostly) over, and we have entered a new era. The author calls it “natural fire” but I call it “modern”. There is no such thing as a “natural fire regime”. Humans are still the arbiters.

    It is probable under the modern fire regime that annual fire acreage will increase because fuel loadings are at historical highs and growing. The former fuel abatement practices (anthropogenic fires) are gone and the consequences are larger and more intense fires as time goes on. The return interval of 144 years will shrink in future decades, and that will have nothing whatsoever to do with global warming.

    • I’m not sure how Scottish Grouse Moors compare to Siberian Tundra, some would claim very similar! But every Spring strips of moor are burnt to encourage the regrowth of young heather, Red Grouse’e staple diet is young heather shoots. The areas burnt don’t burn easily for at least 5 years and more likely a decade. The only exception is if the peat starts burning, which is very rare and happens after a long dry summer. In 25 years living in and a further 40 visiting Perthshire I can recall two peat fires, one went out within an week and one in the 1950s burnt for weeks until winter and an accumulation of rain resoaked the peat.

  3. Like clockwork, the more remote a location is, and hence less independently verifiable, the greater the zeal with which a climate catastrophe is reported.

  4. If burned grass-and-scrub land reduces the food available to wildlife then prairie/tundra fires reduce the number of elk, moose, deer, and caribou farting into the atmosphere.
    If the arctic tundra and water shed cannot capture enough carbon with .05 degree increase in annual peak temperature then charcoal and ash added to the system increase carbon capture efficiency.
    Win-win-win
    Contrariwise, if any of the listed premises is false, then meh. In three months, or after the next rain or snowfall, no one will be able to determine the difference.

  5. The northern Boreal forest is an evolved firescape ecology, which is why it is what it is. Fire is healthy for forest rejuvenation and without it, you would wind up with a bunch of dead trees taking up space and not allowing a new forest to get established very quickly. Many species such as the Pine family rely on fire to release the cone seed so that a new tree will sprout and grow. Siberia is remote, so fire is the only tool available to accomplish this. Some of it could be commercially harvested, but again, it so remote that it isn’t yet that commercially viable, and further north just like Arctic Canada and Alaska, the timber isn’t even commercial as it might be a stunted Black Spruce. But fire is natural and an absolute requirement. It is natural and the alarmists have to quit this talking point, or everyone will soon see they are full of crap.

    I suppose the Red Chinese have their eyes on much of Eastern Siberia since they seem to think it is theirs from historic times, but Russia would be smart to join NATAO, join the civilized world and ensure that China doesn’t keep expanding their peoples further north every year. It’s a problem now with Chinese squatters in Siberia. If DJT could make the deal with Putin’s Russia, that would be a historic win, and we could build a bridge or tunnel across the Bearing Straight and a high speed rail/infrastructure corridor, which would assist the development of the vast resources of Siberia and with overall trade between Europe, Russia and North America. And later Africa and the Middle East. Maybe we tie that in with a branch line to China to Singapore if they ever join the world community and quit harassing everyone. But don’t include China in any type of deal, as the CPC must be punished economically for their crimes against humanity.

  6. Burning grass and scrub land increases forage. Ditto burning closed canopy boreal forests where little forage is available. That’s one reason why humans have burned those habitats continuously for thousands, tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of years.

    Despite ample forage created by aboriginal people with fire, ungulate populations have never approached carrying capacity because they were continuously predated by the residents down to low numbers (perhaps 10% of carrying capacity).

    In any case, all that carbon in the plants, smoke, animals, and people was/is part of the natural carbon cycle. Carbon cycles from air to life and back again. That’s what it does. There is nothing humans can do to change it. Fossil fuels are just a slow part of the cycle, which we can speed up with ample benefit to all life.

    • Oh contraire, there is much humanity can do “change” it. But, what should be stated is: We more than probably cannot change it for the better.

  7. While I appreciate the minds of those who are continually fighting CO2 lies, the simple FACT is that the verifiable truth is climate change is a slim veneer over a Marxist movement. I will no longer debate their nonsense and distractions.

  8. Is there a reason why the data stops in 2016? Did satellites stop working after that? Is July 2020 too early to provide the area burnt in 2019?
    I am always extremely suspicious when I see data that stops too early without any apparent reason. I can notice the smell of cherries in the morning.

  9. Excellent summary of fire based forests. In the months leading up to the recent fires in Australia on the east coast, people were vocally concerned over fuel loads in the bush and scrub land. It didn’t look ‘right’ , made people nervous. Makes sense if these forests have evolved burning regularly, stop the process and it starts to look unbalanced. A rainforest that is eons old, not a fire based growth cycle, looks fine.

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