September 28, 2010

Wildfires, Record Temperatures Scorch Russian Landscape

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The largest country in the world by area, the Russian Federation, has frigid winters and moderate summers, in which temperatures rarely top 70 degrees. This July, record temperatures exceeded 105 degrees, hitting the nation with a high price.

The wildfires began on July 29 and spread to central and western Russia. Fires even reached the border town of Bryansk, an area near Ukraine contaminated with radioactive material following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Had fire reached Chernobyl, it could have created a wave of radioactive pollution.

The death toll hit 50 by mid-August, and the fires created significant infrastructure damage, amounting to an estimated $15 billion US.

With hundreds of deadly wildfires raging across Russia, citizens and spectators from around the world wondered if the massive disaster could have been avoided and if the Russian government neglected the safety of its people.

Scientists have suggested that wildfires are a natural part of Russia’s ecology, and little could have been done to prevent them.

Prof. Joseph B. Yavitt, natural resources, listed the three factors necessary for wildfires to break out, heat waves being only one.

“[First], there must be lots of fuel. Usually fuel is dead leaves, twigs, and stems that accumulate in old, undisturbed forests. Second, there must be hot, dry weather. Cool, moist air will coat the fuel with water and prevent fire. Third, there needs to be a spark to start the fire. Lightening is a primary cause, but humans do a good job too. Therefore, the heat wave did contribute to the fires, but only because there was abundant fuel.”

Fires are difficult to control. According to Prof. Timothy Fahey, natural resources, they will inevitably burn a large area in a dry, windy summer. However, they are natural and often necessary.

“To think of [a fire] as a disaster, is probably not appropriate because it’s something that happens in the course of ecology,” he said. “Naturally, in a forest in an area like Moscow or in any part of the northern world, the forest burns down about once a century. They always have, and they always will.”

Since forest fires are common in dry climates, trees species there have evolved to recover quickly from the fires. Yet, Yavitt described, “in the wetter climate near Moscow … tree species might not have good adaptations for fire.”

Some fires may also scorch soil or cause other damage, like erosion.  “An eroded soil will have less productivity, and thus the regenerating vegetation might be stunted, or worse, converted to weeds and weedy shrubs, rather than trees,” Yavitt explained.

Despite the detrimental outcomes of most wildfires, they may benefit forests. Wildfires kill pathogenic fungi that may potentially harm trees. They can also help recycle some of the nutrients within trees so that the next generation grows back healthy.

“A fire that burns old dead trees and does not scorch the soil can leave a modest layer of ash on the soil surface,” Yavitt said. “Ash is essentially all of the nutrients locked up in old, dying and dead trees, and thus ash is a very good fertilizer for the next generation of trees.”

Because many trees in areas where forest fires are prevalent develop adaptations to withstand them, increased efforts to suppress forest fires may jeopardize forest cycles.

“By suppressing fires, people have changed the way the system works, and that’s coming back to bite us,” Fahey said. “People build houses in areas susceptible to wildfires, so they obviously try to prevent them, but by suppressing them, you’re only letting fuel build up, causing the fire to be a lot worse when it does happen.”

In order to regulate forest fire suppression, many areas in the United States hold controlled burns – burning areas under safe conditions during cool months with the necessary tools for control in place. These burns diminish the amount of fuel present and reduce the intensity of naturally-occurring fires.

“[Controlled burns] definitely reduce the intensity of wildfires. You’re going to get the fires anyway, but instead of being really, really hot fires that just burn everything, you’re going to get a cooler fire, which allows more trees to survive,” Fahey said.

Fahey also explained that controlled burns could reduce the carbon dioxide emissions caused by wildfires. “If you have a controlled burn and get rid of some of the fuel, it releases some of the carbon dioxide,” he said. “But if you don’t get rid of the fuel and there is a fire, then you burn the whole forest and that releases a lot more carbon dioxide.”

Though the heat wave and the resulting wildfires in Russia were unexpected, future fires may come as no surprise due to global warming.  According to Yavitt, “ If global warming leads to drier conditions, then fires might occur during heat waves and produce fires similar to [those of] Summer 2010.”

Original Author: Maria Minsker