A vast, thick, and acrid blanket of smoke emitted from hundreds of forest fires covered most of Russia on August 6, 2021.
This true-color image, which was acquired by Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on board NASA’s Aqua satellite on August 6, was created using data from four passes of the satellite over the region. The smoke, which was so thick that most of the land below was obscured from view, stretches about 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from east to west and 2,500 miles (4,000 km) from south to north—but it captures only a small part of the smoke from the Russian fires. This week, wildfire smoke has travelled more than 3,000 km (1,864 mi) from Yakutia to reach the North Pole. The Chinese news agency, Xinhua, reported that Siberian smoke clouded the skies of parts of Mongolia, including Ulan Bator, the capital city, on August 4—a distance of more than 1,200 miles (2,000 km). On August 6, a broad band of smoke from the wildfires, which appeared to be entrained with the clouds, could be seen over Nunavut, Canada and western Greenland.
While the exact amount of forest burnt so far this year across Russia is difficult to ascertain, with different numbers recited by different sources, the emissions of carbon dioxide estimated by the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service estimates that the emissions since June total more than 505 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent. The 2020 fire season was very severe, but the estimated total carbon dioxide equivalent came to 450 megatons for the entire season.
This smoke primarily comes from the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in Siberia. It is the largest republic in Russia and is heavily covered by boreal forest (also known as taiga). The northern part of Sakha Republic has recorded some of the coldest temperatures on Earth, but this winter has set record high temperatures for the region. On August 2, the Siberian Times reported on the intense, blinding, smoke experienced by residents of Yakutia as wildfires scorched the land. Their report read, “the Republic of Sakha, Russia’s largest territory, used to be known as the Kingdom of Permafrost, (now) is turning into the Capital of Wildfires”. At that time, they estimated that two million hectares of the Republic had been engulfed in flames this year.
EDITOR'S NOTE: On August 13 we updated this article to remove any suggestion that this may be the first appearance of Siberian wildfire smoke over the North Pole in recorded history. An absolute determination of the first occurrence is not possible at this time.