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Siberian wildfires dwarf all others on Earth combined

This aerial picture taken on July 27, 2021, shows a burned forest at Gorny Ulus, west of Yakutsk, in Siberia. (Image credit: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images)

Smoke from massive wildfires in Russia's Siberia region has reached the geographic North Pole "for the first time in recorded history," according to NASA — while the forest blazes themselves are bigger than all the other wildfires currently burning in the world combined, one expert said. 

The U.S space agency published a photograph Saturday (Aug. 7) from one of its satellites that shows the acrid blanket of smoke stretching more than 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers), from the Yakutia region in the northeast of Siberia up to the North Pole. According to their records, this may be the first time this has ever happened.

Wildfires occur every summer in the heavily forested region — a landscape known as the taiga — but this year has been especially bad. 

Related: Wildfire prompts evacuation at Turkey power plant 

Last year, the wildfires in Siberia were described by the Russian authorities as "very severe" and estimated to have caused the equivalent of 450 million tons (410 million metric tons) of carbon dioxide to be released throughout the whole season; but this year the wildfires have released an equivalent of more than 505 million tons (460 million metric tons) of carbon dioxide, and the wildfire season isn't over yet.

NASA estimated the cloud of smoke from the wildfires measured more than 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from east to west and 2,500 miles (4,000 km) from north to south. The Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that the smoke could be seen in the sky above Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, more than 1,200 miles (2,000 km) away.

Extreme climate

The Yakutia region, or Sakha Republic, where the Siberian wildfires are mainly taking place is one of the most remote parts of Russia. 

The capital city, Yakutsk, recorded one of the coldest temperatures on Earth in February 1891, of minus 64.4 degrees Celsius (minus 83.9 degrees Fahrenheit); but the region saw record high temperatures this winter. 

The Siberian Times reported in mid-July that residents were breathing smoke from more than 300 separate wildfires, but that only around half of the forest blazes were being tackled by firefighters — including paratroopers flown in by the Russian military — because the rest were thought to be too dangerous.

The wildfires have grown in size since then and have engulfed an estimated 62,300 square miles (161,300 square km) since the start of the year. 

Russia's weather-monitoring institute Rosgidromet reported on Monday that the situation in the region "continues to deteriorate," with around 13,100 square miles (34,000 square km) of forest currently burning.

Wildfire causes

According to Agence France-Presse, environmentalists blame Russian authorities for letting large areas of forest burn every year under a law that allows them not to intervene if the cost of intervention is greater than the cost of the damage they cause, or if they do not affect inhabited areas.

The fires in Siberia are bigger than this season's wildfires in Greece, Turkey, Italy, the United States and Canada combined, Alexei Yaroshenko, a forestry expert with Greenpeace Russia, told The Washington Post.

He linked the worsening wildfires with the effects of climate change, as well as the "continuing decline of state forest management." 

The Russian media seldom report on Siberian wildfires, he said, and so many people have no idea how much damage they inflict.

"For years, officials and opinion leaders have been saying that fires are normal, that the taiga is always burning, and there is no need to make an issue out of this. People are used to it," Yaroshenko said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Tom Metcalfe is a journalist based in London who writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the earth, and the oceans. He's written for the BBC, NBC News, Live Science, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and others.