Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Russia's fires cause "brown cloud," may hit Arctic

NASA satellite image
of smoke over Russia

Smoke from forest fires smothering Moscow adds to health problems of "brown clouds" from Asia to the Amazon, and Russian soot may stoke global warming by hastening a thaw of Arctic ice, environmental experts say.

"Health effects of such clouds are huge," said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, chair of a U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) study of "brown clouds" blamed for dimming sunlight in cities such as Beijing or New Delhi and hitting crop growth in Asia.

The clouds -- a haze of pollution from cars or coal-fired power plants, forest fires and wood and other materials burned for
"Brown Cloud" over China
cooking and heating -- are near-permanent and blamed for causing chronic respiratory and heart diseases.

"In Asia just the indoor smoke -- because people cook with firewood -- causes over a million deaths a year," Ramanathan, of the University of California, San Diego, stated.

Health of Russians at Risk

Moscow's top health official said on Monday that about 700 people were dying every day, twice as many as in normal weather, as Russia grapples with the oppressive heat and waves of toxic smog.

This heat wave is the worst heat wave in 130 years for Russia. Pollution rates were a record 7 times normal levels by Saturday. On Monday carbon monoxide levels were four times the acceptable limit. The pollutants were having an
effect on those most at risk, such as people with cardiac and lung problems, and pregnant women. Doctors have been insisting that people avoid going outside if possible, and wear moistened face masks when they do.

Some 700 people are dying each day in Moscow, compared to a normal 380 per day, top doctor Andrei Seltsovsky was cited by RIA-Novosti as saying.

Deliveries of bodies has risen sharply. "It's awful," said an employee at Hospital No 59. "The refrigerators are full. Yesterday there were 17 bodies, and the day before that 17. Normally it's two or three a day." Seltsovsky added that city morgues were dangerously close to their capacity of 1,500 bodies, with 1,300 currently in store.

All non-emergency operations at hospitals have been canceled and many inpatients have chosen to go home because they cannot stand the heat and smoke in wards without air conditioners or fans. Paramedics are reported to have fainted in stifling ambulances.

Health officials urged caution over the effects of the smog, saying it is too early to calibrate the damage. President Dmitry Medvedev urged people to protect themselves by wearing masks.

Meanwhile, Moscow’s Department of Social Welfare opened 123 anti-smog centers to help Muscovites survive the oppressive heat and smog in the capital. Most of the centers have air-conditioning and it’s possible to stay there from 9 am until 8 pm, Monday to Friday.

“We have two air-conditioners and a TV set, so you’re welcome to stay here,” a social worker at the Yakimanka Social Center told The Moscow News. “You should bring the kids too.”

Other hideouts from the smog in Moscow are cinemas, shopping malls and cars.

Unprecedented Heat Says Weatherman

Carbon Monoxide over Western
Russia (NASA)

Russia's top meteorological official, Alexander Frolov, said the heatwave was the most severe in the country's millennium-long history

"No similar heatwave has been observed neither by ourselves nor by our ancestors," he told a televised news conference. "This is a completely unique phenomenon."

Heat Wave in Russia
There is no end to the heat wave yet in sight as the heat in most parts of European Russia is likely to continue over the next 10 days, the deputy director of Hydrometcenter, a senior Russian weather official said on Tuesday.

"The situation is not changing radically," Dmitry Kiktyov, deputy director of Hydrometcenter, said. "The temperature will change insignificantly, and there will be only local rains. They will be insufficient to cushion the current situation."

Emergency services reported about 557 wildfires were burning over 174,000 hectares (430,000 acres) in central Russia and the Moscow region, with flames also raging close to a nuclear reprocessing site in the Urals.

Moscow is not the only city to suffer as television reports said the smoke reached Russia's second city of St. Petersburg and the Urals' main city of Yekaterinburg was also veiled in smog.

Severe Impact on Grain Crops

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that record drought would slash the grain harvest in the leading wheat producer by about 10 million tons.

Putin announced that Russia's grain harvest for 2010 would be 60-65 million tons, Russian news agencies reported. Only last week it had been forecast at 70-75 million tons.

Russia has seen 10 million hectares of land destroyed in the drought and the new figure represents a massive fall compared with its 2009 harvest of 97 million tons.

The severity of the drought has seen states of emergency declared in 27 regions and dealt a major blow to Russia's ambitions of ramping up its global market share over the next years.

Putin last week shocked international markets by announcing that from August 15 Russia would ban exports to keep prices down at home and ensure there was enough feed grain for its cattle herd.

Despite the ban of grain exports, Nizhny Novgorod grain is still trading at high prices, forcing some small farmers to slaughter livestock. Nizhny Novgorod has been particularly badly hit by the deadly wildfires that have swept across European Russia in the past 10 days.

NASA satellite image showing
smoke over Russia
This year's unprecedented heatwave and drought have scorched grain crops, driving many farmers to the brink of bankruptcy. An uncontrollable wave of wildfires sweeping across European Russia is adding to farmers’ woes, threatening their land with destruction.

Larsha, a dilapidated Soviet collective farm was purchased by two men in 2006 and modernized under their management to produce grain, vegetables and milk.

At least one-third of the grain crop at Larsha has been destroyed by the drought this year and the potato harvest, usually sold to the Russian army, wiped out altogether.

The fires are also taking a toll. Tractors that should now be plowing land for sowing winter grain have been mobilized to dig trenches round fields to stop forest fires encroaching on farmland. Criticism has been mounting of the authorities’ handling of the wildfires which have killed at least 52 people and forced thousands to flee their homes.

“Russia’s biggest resource is its land. We once fed the whole of Europe,” said Mr Skoblikov, one of the two owners of Larsha.

Russia's Brown Cloud

"The Russian fires are in principle similar to what you see from other brown clouds," said Henning Rodhe of Stockholm University, a vice-chair of the UNEP Atmospheric Brown Cloud study. "The difference is that this only lasts a few weeks."

Asian pollution has been blamed for dusting Himalayan glaciers with black soot that absorbs more heat than reflective snow and ice and so speeds a thaw. Worldwide, however, the polluting haze blocks out sunlight and so slows climate change.

For the climate, "the main concern ... is what impact the Russian smoke would have on the Arctic, in terms of black carbon and other (particles) in the smoke settling on the sea ice," Ramanathan said.

In past years "we have had episodes of biomass burning that have brought clouds in over the Arctic," said Kim Holmen, director of research at the Norwegian Polar Institute.
Smog over the Arctic

Holmen, who runs a pollution monitoring station in Svalbard in the high Arctic, said the air over Russia was fairly stable in recent days, concentrating smoke over land. But a shift in winds, easing pollution in Moscow, could sweep smog northwards.

Arctic sea ice, which shrinks in mid-September to an annual minimum before the winter freeze, now covers a slightly bigger area than in 2007 and 2008, the smallest extents since satellite measurements began in the 1970s.

The exposure of Arctic Ocean water to sunlight is a threat to the livelihoods of Arctic peoples and creatures such as polar bears. It also accelerates global warming, blamed by the U.N. panel of climate experts on mankind's use of fossil fuels.

"Such conditions are likely to become more common in the future," Rodhe said of the Russian heatwave and related fires.

Asia is most studied for brown clouds but they also form over parts of North America, Europe, the Amazon basin and southern Africa. Burning of savannah in sub-Saharan Africa, to clear land for crops, is a new source.

Peat bog near
Moscow burns
Forest and peat bog fires are burning over 1,740 sq kms (672 sq mile), the Russian Emergencies Ministry said. By contrast, official Brazilian data show the Amazon rainforest lost 1,810 sq kms in almost a year to June 2010.

Holmen also echoed Russian authorities' worries that the fires may also release radioactive elements locked in vegetation since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986.

Radioactive isotopes include strontium 90 and caesium 137. Other industrial pollutants such as PCBs could also be freed.

Reuters, "Russia's fires cause "brown cloud," may hit Arctic", accessed August 10, 2010
Reuters, "Heat seen continuing in European Russia for 10 days", accessed August 10, 2010
The Guardian, "Moscow death rate doubles as smoke from wildfires shrouds capital", accessed August 10, 2010
Moscow News, "Deaths double in Moscow smog", accessed August 10, 2010
The Financial Times, "Russian farmers on brink of bankruptcy", accessed August 10, 2010
The Montreal Gazette, "Moscow deaths double in Russia's 'worst ever' heat", August 10, 2010

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