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Russia is, at the time of writing, being consumed by wildfires caused by the worst heat wave the country has endured in a millennia. A state of emergency has been declared in 35 regions of the country — seven for the fires themselves, and another 28 for crop failures caused by the drought and heat wave.
UK media has largely ignored the disaster, but the web is alive with eye-witness accounts, photographs, videos and maps of how the flames are spreading. Most of the information is coming through blogging site LiveJournal, which has a large Russian population.
Following the July heat wave in the country, peat fires — which can smoulder for years underground — ignited forest fires in the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, the Voronezh Oblast, and across central and western Russia. A few days later, an area of 500,000 hectares was ablaze, with Moscow shrouded in a dense, thick smoke.
Since then, the area of the fires has been brought under control, with now only about 200,000 hectares ablaze, but there are much bigger problems looming. The fires have approached the Red Forest, an area that suffered the worst of Chernobyl’s fallout in 1986, with the soil still heavily contaminated by cesium-137 and strontium-90.
Similarly, the Mayak nuclear fuel reprocessing facility in Chelyabinsk Oblast is also threatened by the flames, as is a nuclear research center in Sarov, which was formerly known as the secret town Arzamas-16. If any of the structures succumb, then radionuclides could be spread widely afield, generating new zones of radioactive pollution and displacing the population of those areas.
The effects of the smoke on public health could also be severe. In central Moscow, pollutants have reached 6.6 times the normal level for carbon monoxide, and 2.8 times that of suspended particulate matter. Deaths in the city have doubled, hitting about 700 people per day, and at least 53 people (and possibly hundreds) have been killed directly by the fires in other parts of the country.
To see the current status of the fires, you can view a Google Earth layer (which obviously requires Google Earth to be installed) or there’s also a web version, but that’s in Russian. On LiveJournal, user i-cherski has been blogging extensively about the disaster, and there are a few impressive photos of the damage on Boston.com’s Big Picture. One YouTube user videoed himself driving through the inferno, which makes for some grim viewing.
However, there could be a silver lining to the disaster. In an abrupt U-turn on previous policies, Russian officials have begun linking the heat wave with climate change. President Dmitry Medvedev said in a speech published on the Kremlin’s website: “Unfortunately, what is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions in the past. This means that we need to change the way we work, change the methods that we used in the past.”
That contrasts dramatically with the president’s previous rhetoric on the matter, which included a statement that “we will not let anyone cut our development potential,” vowing not to cut carbon emissions. If this U-turn is permanent, and not just an attempt to keep the blame for the disaster away from the government’s peat bog-draining policies and cuts in rural fire services, then perhaps global climate change legislation may finally be able to make some progress.
Image: Google Earth