Siberia forest fires spark potential ‘disaster’ for Arctic

A satellite photo shows aerosol index overlaid and the fire peaks over Siberia. (Reuters)
Updated 30 July 2019

Siberia forest fires spark potential ‘disaster’ for Arctic

  • More than 3.2 million hectares (7.9 million acres) went up in flames on Monday, mainly in the vast regions of Yakutia in the north and Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk in Siberia
  • The fires, triggered by dry thunderstorms in temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), were spread by strong winds

MOSCOW: Gigantic forest fires have regularly raged through the vast expanses of Russia’s Siberia, but the magnitude of this year’s blazes has reached an exceptional level with fears of a long-term impact on the environment.

As fires sweep across millions of hectares enveloping entire cities in black smoke and noxious fumes, environmentalists warn of a disaster threatening to accelerate the melting of the Arctic.

More than 3.2 million hectares (7.9 million acres) went up in flames on Monday, mainly in the vast regions of Yakutia in the north and Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk in Siberia, authorities said.

The fires, triggered by dry thunderstorms in temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), were spread by strong winds, Russia’s federal forestry agency said.

The acrid smoke has affected not only small settlements but also major cities in Western Siberia and the Altai region as well as the Urals such as Chelyabinsk and Yekaterinburg, and disrupted air travel.

“The smoke is horrible. I am choking and dizzy,” pensioner Raisa Brovkina, who was hospitalized in Russia’s third-largest city Novosibirsk, told state television. On Sunday, the smoke reached neighboring Kazakhstan.

A “concentration of pollutants exceeding the norm” was recorded in several cities, including the capital Nur-Sultan, said the Kazakh meteorological service.

Aside from health fears for the local population, environmentalists warn the fires may accelerate global warming. “The forest fires in the eastern part of the country have long stopped being a local problem,” the Russian branch of Greenpeace said in a statement.

“It has transformed into an ecological disaster with consequences for the entire country.”

According to the environmental group, almost 12 million hectares were burnt this year, causing significant CO2 emissions and reducing the future capacity of forest to absorb the carbon dioxide.

“Then there is the added problem that soot falling on ice or snow melts darkens it, thus reducing the reflectiveness of the surface and trapping more heat,” the World Meteorological Organization told AFP in a statement.

Some scientists posted satellite images from NASA showing the clouds of smoke reaching Arctic areas. Greenpeace Russia expert Grigory Kuksin said the soot and ashes accelerate the melting of the Arctic ice and permafrost — the permanently frozen layer that has begun melting — releasing gases that reinforce global warming.

Kuksin called the impact on the climate “very serious.” “It is comparable to the emissions of major cities,” he said. “The more fires affect the climate, the more conditions are created for new dangerous fires.” Greenpeace has launched a petition demanding Russian authorities do more to fight the fires.

But the situation is complicated by the fact that Russia does not have enough money to contain the wildfires, environmentalists add. The majority of the fires rage in remote or inaccessible areas and authorities make the decision to extinguish them only if the estimated damage exceeds the cost of the operation, experts say.

Otherwise, the role of Russian authorities is limited to monitoring the wildfires, they say. Kuksin of Greenpeace said Russian officials do not prioritize financial resources to put out fires in remote areas, taking issue with such an approach.

“The maximum amount possible should be put out from the start,” he said. “We need to plan and allocate resources, but we continue to save money claiming it is ‘economically impractical’.”


China says death toll from coronavirus rises to 106, confirmed cases hits 4,515

He Qinghua, inspector for China's National Health Commission's disease control and prevention bureau, speaks during a National Health Commission press conference in Beijing on January 27, 2020. (AFP)
Updated 28 January 2020

China says death toll from coronavirus rises to 106, confirmed cases hits 4,515

  • On China’s heavily censored social media, officials have faced mounting anger over the virus, which is thought to have originated from a market where wildlife was sold illegally

SHANGHAI: The United States warned against travel to China on Monday and Canada issued a more narrow travel warning as the death toll from the spreading coronavirus passed 106, with tens of millions stranded during the biggest holiday of the year and global markets rattled.
Global stocks fell, oil prices hit three-month lows, and China’s yuan dipped to its weakest level in 2020 as investors fretted about damage to the world’s second-biggest economy from travel bans and the Lunar New Year holiday, which China extended in a bid to keep people at home.
The health commission of China’s Hubei province said on Tuesday that 106 people had died from the virus as of Jan. 27, according to an online statement, up from the previous toll of 76, with the number of confirmed cases in the province rose to 4,515.
Other fatalities have been reported elsewhere in China, including the first in Beijing, bringing the deal toll to 106 so far, according to the People’s Daily. The state newspaper put the total number of confirmed cases in China at 4,193, though some experts suspect a much higher number.
On Monday, US President Donald Trump offered China whatever help it needed, while the State Department said Americans should “reconsider” visiting all of China due to the virus.
Canada, which has two confirmed cases of the virus and is investigating 19 more potential cases, warned its citizens to avoid travel to China’s Hubei province, at the heart of the outbreak.
Authorities in Hubei province are taking increasing flak from the public over their initial response to the virus. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited the city of Wuhan, epicenter of the outbreak, to encourage medical workers and promise reinforcements.
Visiting Wuhan in blue protective suit and mask, Li praised medics, said 2,500 more workers would join them in the next two days, and visited the site of a new hospital to be built in days.
The most senior leader to visit Wuhan since the outbreak, Li was shown on state TV leading medical workers in chants of “Wuhan jiayou!” — an exhortation to keep their strength up.
China’s ambassador to the United Nations, following a meeting with UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Monday, said “the Chinese government attaches paramount importance to prevention and control of the epidemic, and President Xi Jinping has given important instructions. ...
“China has been working with the international community in the spirit of openness, transparency and scientific coordination,” he said.
Guterres said in a statement, “The UN appreciates China’s effort, has full confidence in China’s ability of controlling the outbreak, and stands ready to provide any support and assistance.”

MOUNTING ANGER
On China’s heavily censored social media, officials have faced mounting anger over the virus, which is thought to have originated from a market where wildlife was sold illegally.
Some criticized the governor of Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, after he corrected himself twice during a news conference over the number of face masks being produced.
“If he can mess up the data multiple times, no wonder the disease has spread so severely,” said one user of the Weibo social media platform.
In rare public self-criticism, Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang said the city’s management of the crisis was “not good enough” and indicated he was willing to resign.
The central Chinese city of 11 million people is in virtual lockdown and much of Hubei, home to nearly 60 million people, is under travel curbs.
Elsewhere in China, people from the region faced questioning about their movements. “Hubei people are getting discriminated against,” a Wuhan resident complained on Weibo.
Cases linked to people who traveled from Wuhan have been confirmed in a dozen countries, from Japan to the United States, where authorities said they had 110 people under investigation in 26 states. Sri Lanka was the latest to confirm a case.

INVESTORS WORRIED
Investors are worried about the impact. The consensus is that in the short term, economic output will be hit as authorities limit travel and extend the week-long New Year holiday — when millions traditionally travel by rail, road and plane — by three days to limit spread of the virus.
Asian and European shares tumbled, with Japan’s Nikkei average sliding 2%, its biggest one-day fall in five months. Demand spiked for safe-haven assets such as the Japanese yen and Treasury notes. European stocks fell more than 2%.
The US S&P 500 closed down nearly 1.6%.
“China is the biggest driver of global growth so this couldn’t have started in a worse place,” said Alec Young, FTSE Russell’s managing director of global markets research.
During the 2002-2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which originated in China and killed nearly 800 people globally, air passenger demand in Asia plunged 45%. The travel industry is more reliant on Chinese travelers now.
Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, which has had eight cases, banned entry to people who had visited Hubei recently.
Some European tour operators canceled trips to China, while governments around the world worked on repatriating nationals.
Officially known as 2019-nCoV, the newly identified coronavirus can cause pneumonia, but it is still too early to know just how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads.
“What we know about this virus it that transmission occurs through human contact but we are speaking of close contact, i.e. less than a meter,” said Jerome Salomon, a senior official with France’s health ministry.
“Crossing someone (infected) in the street poses no threat,” he said. “The risk is low when you spend a little time near that person and becomes higher when you spend a lot of time near that person.”