How Record Heat In Siberia Is Messing With...Everything : Short Wave Climate change and this year's weather patterns are behind the record-breaking heat in Siberia. NPR Climate Reporter Rebecca Hersher tells us how it's contributed to all sorts of problems there — mosquito swarms, buckling roads, wildfires. And we'll hear how these high temps are threatening the livelihoods of Indigenous Russians.

How Record Heat In Siberia Is Messing With...Everything

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Hello, Rebecca Hersher, NPR climate reporter.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hello, Maddie Sofia, woman on a mission.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

HERSHER: Did you know that I have been watching a lot of alarming videos lately?

SOFIA: I did not. And that's not what I expected you to ask me. Go on.

HERSHER: OK, just bear with me. Can we listen to one of them?

SOFIA: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOSQUITOES BUZZING)

HERSHER: What does this sound like to you?

SOFIA: Like a - like "The Blair Witch Project"? A lot of shuffling. I don't know.

HERSHER: It's a good guess. So it's the sound of someone walking through a swarm of mosquitoes.

SOFIA: Oh.

HERSHER: So many that they're like coating the wall of this shed. Like, they look like paint.

SOFIA: No.

HERSHER: Yes. And this is not the only video like this. There is a whole part of the 2020 Internet in between, like, the pandemic and everything else that is terrible...

SOFIA: Yes.

HERSHER: ...That is just about the mosquito season in Siberia. One of my favorites is this video from early June. It's in the Altai, like, Southern Siberia near Mongolia.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

HERSHER: And the person in this video is wearing a rain jacket with the hood up, rain pants. They're sitting on the edge of an inflatable boat. They put their hand down into the boat and scoop out a handful of live mosquitoes.

SOFIA: No, no.

HERSHER: Like, his hand is just covered in them. And he says, I just killed about a thousand mosquitoes.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Laughter).

HERSHER: And what I love about this video is that he can't stop giggling about it, even though it's like - it's so unpleasant.

SOFIA: Yeah.

HERSHER: And they're, like, flying into his mouth. He's, like, spitting them out as he talks. But he and his friend who's shooting the video are both just, like, laughing so hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken, laughter).

SOFIA: So I have heard of some pretty intense mosquito issues in my day, but this feels like it's above and beyond. Like, why is this happening? Why are you making us think of these things?

HERSHER: So the reason I've been watching these videos and the reason it's happening is because Russia and especially Siberia are having their hottest year ever recorded - temperatures in the 90s, even pushing 100 degrees all the way up above the Arctic Circle. In some places, it's 20, even 30 degrees hotter than the normal average.

SOFIA: Wow.

HERSHER: Yeah.

SOFIA: I didn't know it got that hot up there. You know what I mean?

HERSHER: Well, it doesn't, except it is.

SOFIA: Right.

HERSHER: And it's not like a heat wave, where it, like, gets cooler after a week or two. This is months. Like, it got warmer than it usually does earlier in the year, and it has stayed abnormally hot in the region for months, which means a nice, long, warm season for mosquitoes to procreate. And that is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

SOFIA: OK. You didn't have to do that with the iceberg.

HERSHER: You're welcome.

SOFIA: OK. So today on the show, how climate change is messing with mosquitoes, trees and reindeer.

HERSHER: And how Siberia's hottest year ever is directly threatening the livelihoods and the health of many people who live there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: OK, Becky, so let's talk about this record-breaking heat in Russia. Is this the first time something like this has happened? Because I haven't ever heard of this before.

HERSHER: Yeah. So it's not the first time it's happened, but it's the most intense the heat has ever been.

SOFIA: Got you.

HERSHER: So basically, summers in Siberia had been getting steadily hotter on average for decades. And that's because of climate change, obviously. The Earth is almost two degrees warmer now than it was before the Industrial Revolution. And the poles are heating up much faster than the rest of the planet. So especially in the parts of Siberia that are very far north, so-called Arctic Russia, that's been heating up pretty quickly.

SOFIA: So, like, what's going on this year?

HERSHER: Well, what's happening this year is that the weather patterns are keeping cold air up around the North Pole. So basically, the wind pattern that goes in a circle around the North Pole is really tight and strong. So you don't get that cold air coming down farther south into Russia to provide some relief from the heat.

SOFIA: Got it. So you take that, like, warming trend and combine it with this year's weather patterns, and you get this record-breaking heat.

HERSHER: Yep. Exactly. And I talked to Robert Rohde about this. He's the head of Berkeley Earth. He studies global climate trends.

ROBERT ROHDE: You know, they're experiencing temperatures right now which we would expect would be normal around 2100 the way climate change has been going.

SOFIA: Oh, wow. OK. So this year is like a sneak peak of Russia's possible future. So besides helping mosquitoes make lots of babies. How does that heat affect people who live in Siberia?

HERSHER: In so many ways. So for example, buildings are collapsing.

SOFIA: Wow.

HERSHER: I called Bathsheba Demuth about this. She's a historian at Brown University. She studies - this is interesting - the ecological history of the Arctic.

BATHSHEBA DEMUTH: Infrastructure in this part of the north is mostly built on permafrost, so on this layer of ground that's mostly frozen year-round. Sometimes, the surface layer thaws but the main base of it is frozen, you know, 365 days out of the year. And when you have these really warm periods, the permafrost starts melting at a much quicker rate. And it destabilizes the foundations of people's houses.

HERSHER: And it's not just houses, although that is very scary if it's your house. Roads, railroads can buckle. This spring, oil storage tanks collapsed in northern Siberia and dumped tons of oil into a river.

SOFIA: That's awful.

HERSHER: Yeah. It's a big disaster. And on top of that, there are the mammals that some people rely on for food. So Demuth is really an expert on the people who live in the Russian Far East. That's the part of Siberia that's right across the Bering Strait from Alaska. And many of the people who live there are Indigenous Russians who rely on ice to hunt for animals.

DEMUTH: So there's concern about people being able to hunt on the sea ice if you're in a community that has historically hunted walruses and seals.

HERSHER: And then farther west, mostly, there are a lot of Indigenous Russians who raise reindeer herds.

DEMUTH: Reindeer are animals that are adapted to the Ice Age. They like it cold and find this weather extremely trying.

HERSHER: So reindeer are more likely to get sick, more likely to die, less able to reproduce successfully when it's really hot, which puts people's livelihoods in immediate danger.

SOFIA: OK. So the heat is messing with roads buildings, you know, humans and animals. Can we also talk about these wildfires that I've been hearing about? Because it seems like those have been pretty intense.

HERSHER: Yes. So - and this is not the first year. So last year was a record-breaking year for wildfires in the Russian Arctic. And this year is even worse. That's according to the European Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.

SOFIA: Are these fires different than the natural fire that's kind of part of the forest ecosystems, the fire we think of as healthy fire?

HERSHER: Yeah. In a lot of cases, they are. What's really concerning, scientists say, is the intensity and the frequency of these fires. That can damage forests, like, when there isn't enough time for the ecosystem to recover.

SOFIA: Got you.

HERSHER: And these really large fires - they can also contribute significantly to global warming because when Arctic areas or boreal forests, which is the type of northern forests in Siberia - when they burn, they release a lot of carbon.

SOFIA: Like, more carbon than other wildfires in different places? Because I think, like, in my brain, I would think that fires in tropical areas would release more carbon dioxide because everything grows more quickly in - you know, in the rainforest. So there's more to burn.

HERSHER: Yeah, I thought the exact same thing. And it's wrong. It's actually the opposite. But I had to call a forest ecologist to help me understand this. Her name is Amber Soja. She studies Siberian forest fires at NASA.

AMBER SOJA: Siberia and boreal regions in general - this is where most of the terrestrial carbon is stored. And this might not be something that you hear because you generally think of the tropics. And the tropics are incredibly productive. And so they take in a lot of carbon, but they also release a lot of carbon. So if you're a leaf and you, you know, fall or anything in a tropical forest, decomposers decompose you immediately. In contrast, the boreal forest is cold a lot of the year. Therefore, you don't have a lot of decomposers decomposing.

But in the summer, there's a lot of daylight. And there's a lot of vegetation growing. So if you're a leaf or whatever falls - twig - you partially decompose. You don't completely decompose. And this material stacks up. And it's been stacking up for hundreds of years, for millennia. So we have all this carbon that is stored in the forest floor in Arctic and boreal systems.

SOFIA: OK. OK. So, basically, because decomposition works better in warm places - #bacteria - these colder Arctic forests have all this partially decomposed material that's built up over, let's say, hundreds of years. So when that burns, they're releasing, like, hundreds of years of carbon.

HERSHER: Yeah. Nailed it.

SOFIA: OK. OK. So here's what I want to know, Hersher. What are we supposed to do with this information? Like, how do we look at all of this and imagine a future for the Arctic that's anything but fire and bugs.

HERSHER: Right? Yeah, I totally hear you. Like, climate change in the Arctic is so relentlessly sad. In so many ways, global warming is undermining ecosystems. It's making people's lives harder. But then for this story, I talked to somebody who sees things differently. And it's somebody kind of surprising who I might not think of this way.

NADIA TCHEBAKOVA: Hello, Rebecca.

HERSHER: Good morning. How are you?

TCHEBAKOVA: (Laughter) I'm fine. Waiting for your call.

HERSHER: Well, I appreciate you. I know you don't usually talk about your work in English.

TCHEBAKOVA: The last time I spoke English was in December. But I try to use any chance to talk (laughter).

SOFIA: I mean, she's crushing it, to be honest.

HERSHER: Oh, yeah. Her English is flawless. Nadia Tchebakova is a climate scientist at the Institute of Forests (ph) at the Russian Academy of Sciences. It's in the central Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. And she's been there for 50 years. She lives with a lot of the things we've been talking about, like, sees things change year after year, and a few years ago, she published a scientific paper that specifically asked, how sustainable is it for humans to live in this part of the world?

TCHEBAKOVA: They have been studying this question for a pretty long time, maybe 20, 30 years.

HERSHER: She and two colleagues, including Amber Soja from NASA, looked back at decades of science about everything we're talking about here - forests and fires and health, pests and food and infrastructure. And they concluded that many parts of Siberia are going to be more populated in the future. They're going to get more desirable as the Earth gets hotter, not less.

SOFIA: Huh. OK. So that's like - that's kind of complicated - right, Becky? - because, obviously, we're talking about all these negative aspects of climate change. But at the same time, there are changes that could potentially help people for example live more easily in a place like Siberia.

HERSHER: Yeah, exactly. It's this tension. You know, there's a lot of really cold wilderness where it's hard to grow stuff right now in Siberia, for example. Global warming will make it easier to grow some things, will make the winters shorter and more mild, which will likely appeal to some people, especially to people who might be displaced from places that get dangerously hot as the climate changes, you know, places further south.

SOFIA: Right.

HERSHER: And Tchebakova says that means Russia will need to invest in Siberia, which has not historically happened. And it's also impossible to know who will be the winners and the losers of a warmer Siberian future. So either way they'll need to build roads and homes that don't buckle as the ground thaws. They'll need to manage forests, so they don't burn every year and develop the land in ways that can be sustainably supporting food production.

TCHEBAKOVA: Of course, all developments are dependent on investments in infrastructure and agriculture. And these decisions should be made just in the near future because climate change rate is very, very rapid.

HERSHER: So basically, she's saying this could happen, but it needs to happen pretty fast.

SOFIA: Yeah.

HERSHER: And it will have to happen carefully because if you develop wrong, you can make the problem worse.

SOFIA: OK, Becky Hersher, I appreciate you. I learned a lot today. I'll say that.

HERSHER: You know what, Maddie? Me, too, about bacteria.

(LAUGHTER)

SOFIA: This episode was produced by Abby Wendle, fact checked by Berly McCoy and edited by Viet Le. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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