Heat, Drought, and Fire Striking Early in Asia

May 6, 2020, 5:41 PM EDT

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Above: Wildfires in Siberia, Russia, are bringing even more misery to an area that is already on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Nine regions have been affected, with Kemerovo and Novosibirsk among the hardest hit to date. This satellite image showing active fires and smoke plumes was collected on April 27, 2020, by the Terra satellite using its Moderate Resolution Imaging System (MODIS) instrument. (NASA Earth Observatory)

The warmest winter on record across much of Eurasia has paved the way for spring extremes that are devouring landscapes and rewriting record books. The final week of April pushed summerlike heat up to latitudes further north than Minnesota, and wildfires are off to a destructive start in Siberia, while severe drought in Southeast Asia has led to Earth’s first billion-dollar drought disaster of 2020.

“It’s a monstrously big and very hot air mass for April,” said international weather records researcher Maximiliano Herrera of the late-April heat wave in northern Asia.

Here’s one example: The town of Boguchany—a Siberian village of about 11,000 people at 58.4°N, or about the same latitude as Churchill, Canada, the “polar bear capital of the world”—soared to 31.0°C (87.8°F) on April 25. This didn’t just edge past the town’s previous monthly record of 25.1°C (77.2°F) from April 23, 2011. It smashed it by close to 6°C (11°F).

The new record also tops Boguchany’s normal daily high in July (25.8°C or 78.4°F) by a wide margin.

Many other Siberian villages saw their hottest April weather on record. In fact, the 32.1°C (89.8°F) notched at Sukhobuzimskoye (latitude 56.5°N) on April 25 is the warmest reading ever confirmed anywhere in the vastness of Asian Russia north of 55°N—an area larger than the entire United States.

Incredible heat for late April extended across other parts of Central and East Asia as well. At least three all-time national heat records for April were set:

—Kyrgyzstan: 35.1°C (95.2°F) at Tokmak on April 27

—China: 43.5°C (110.3°F) at Ayding Lake on April 29 (Ayding Lake is one of the lowest spots on Earth, at 502 feet or 154 meters below sea level)

—Mongolia: 36°C (rounded) (96.8°F) at Ekhiyn-Gol (Oasis) on April 30

Even in these extreme desert climates, such temperatures are more on par with normal readings in July. Many other Chinese towns and cities set all-time April heat records, according to Etienne Kapikian (Meteo-France).

The heat continued into early May and pushed further east into the Korean Peninsula and Japan, producing a high of 35.1°C (95.1°F) on May 2 at Hamheung, North Korea (latitude 39°56'N). According to weather records expert Jérôme Reynaud, “This is a remarkable value for early May in the country, especially at this latitude.” On May 3, the Chinese town of Xingyang hit 41.0°C (105.8°F), a monthly heat record for the province—especially impressive given that it’s still so early in May.

Russia was the world’s hottest populated area relative to average in April, according to data released by the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. (NOAA and NASA will release their April reports next week.)

A fiery mid-spring in Siberia

Most of 2020 has been unusually warm across Russia, and the parched landscape has been ripe for early-season wildfire throughout much of southern Siberia. The Krasnoyarsk region, which includes Boguchany, was seeing ten times the wildfire extent by late April this year compared to last year, according to Russian emergencies minister Evgeny Zinichev as quoted in the Siberian Times. For the nation as a whole, fire outbreaks were running about 60% ahead of last year, and the acreage burned was about 25% ahead of 2019 levels.

“A critical situation with fires has developed in Siberia and the Far East,” warned Zinichev. “A less snowy winter, an abnormal winter, and insufficient soil moisture are factors that create the conditions for the transition of landscape fires to settlements.”

While some of the fires are agriculture-related, others are apparently coronavirus-related. Many Russians chose to escape urban apartments and quarantine themselves in the countryside, said Sergei Anoprienko, head of Russia’s forest agency Rosleskhoz. “People self-isolated outdoors and forgot about fire safety rules,” he told the Siberian Times. “In some regions, the temperature is already around 30°C, and people just can’t keep themselves in their apartments.

“People rushed outdoors, and as a result we have a surge of thermal points.”

Flames of deja vu

As of May 1, roughly 5 million acres of forest and grassland had been consumed by fire in Russia, geographer Thomas Smith (London School of Economics) told Earther. If so, that could make it Russia’s worst April for wildfire in more than a decade, based on data compiled by Greenpeace Russia.

The Krasonyarsk region has barely had a chance to breathe (almost literally), with this year’s early wildfires coming on the heels of an unusually prolonged fire season in 2019. “I don’t remember a situation where the fires burned this long, and I’ve been in forest management since 1972,” Pyotr Tsvetkov (Sukachev Forest Institute in Krasnoyarsk) told Bloomberg in August 2019. “There aren’t many fires, but they are over a huge territory and the smoke covers hundreds of kilometers. There’s no air to breathe in Krasnoyarsk and the smoke has made it to the Urals.”

Each year across much of Siberia, fires are spreading unchecked in “control zones” where government policy does not mandate firefighting, according to Greenpeace Russia. “Many of the fires in control zones this year [2019] could have been extinguished at an early stage, which would significantly reduce the area covered by the fire, the smoke of settlements and CO2 emissions into the atmosphere,” the nongovernmental organization stated in a news release.

Russia's new approach to letting major fires burn, put into law in 2015, makes it difficult to compare recent fire seasons against older ones. However, there is ample evidence that human-caused climate change is exacerbating boreal forest fires, which rage each year across Siberia, Alaska, and Canada. Along with the impacts to people and ecosystems where the blazes are happening, such fires are adding huge amounts of stored carbon to the atmosphere.

Earth’s first billion-dollar drought disaster of 2020: Southeast Asia

WU co-founder and Cat 6 founder Jeff Masters reports:

“The intense heat of 2020 has been accompanied by severe lack of rainfall across parts of Southeast Asia, with severe drought conditions developing in multiple countries. Among the hardest-hit nations have been Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. The government of Thailand has declared a state emergency due to drought-related saltwater intrusions into the aquifers, and the Bank of Ayudhya's Krungsri Research projected that the 2020 dry season could cost the nation as much as $1.5 billion (0.27 percent of GDP.)

“According to insurance broker Aon, drought damages in excess of $1 billion have already occurred in 2020 across the ASEAN nations--Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.”

Thanks go to Maximiliano Herrera, Etienne Kapikian, Jeff Masters, and Jérôme Reynaud for contributing to this post.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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Bob Henson

Bob Henson is a meteorologist and writer at weather.com, where he co-produces the Category 6 news site at Weather Underground. He spent many years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and is the author of “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change” and “Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology.”


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