Underground ‘zombie fires’ burn as Siberian temperatures fall to 75 degrees below zero

Weather Blog
Ice in Russia

Ice in Russia (Anton Petrus/Getty Images)

DELYANKIR, Russia (KXAN) — The three-person population of Delyankir, Russia, recently experienced some of the coldest temperatures on Earth this past Tuesday.

The thermometer fell to a temperature of 75 degrees below zero, the coldest the area has been since January 2014. Despite the frigid cold, below the freezing ice and snowy landscape lies a sustained fire known as a “zombie fire.”

Zombie fires occur when a fire from a previous year smolders underground in carbon-rich peat (organic fuel) during the winter, then re-ignites on the surface as the weather warms and the ground thaws the next season. This can lead to even more burning the following year.

Oymyakon, 90 miles southwest of Delyankir and with a population near 460, had to close schools due to the extreme cold. This area experienced 72 degrees below zero temperatures and is considered to have the “world’s coldest school.” According to the Siberian Times the protocol for school closures for their district is if temperatures fall below minus 63 degrees, then students younger than 11 years-old are allowed to stay home. If temperatures fall below minus 65 degrees, all classes must be cancelled.

It’s important to note the temperatures above the landscape of a zombie fire is almost irrelevant as there’s still plenty of heat trapped below the surface. Snow and ice can act as a barrier protecting the elements and temperature of the climate below. These smoldering fires still have plenty of heat, fuel, and oxygen to stay sustained for years.

Video posted on Twitter from a local photographer captured the smoke rising out of the snow.

Climate change implications

Zombie fires emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a known greenhouse gas. Emissions increase as both the burning of vegetation and burning of peat/permafrost release CO2 into the atmosphere, furthering our planet’s warming.

Some researchers estimate that from January to the end of August, Arctic CO2 emissions from fires alone were 244 megatonnes. By comparison, Texas averages 707 megatonnes per year.

Scientists are also finding local fire-resistant vegetation isn’t exactly fire-resistant any more.

Warmer temps brought on by climate change are creating hotter and drier conditions in the Arctic tundra, causing things such dwarf shrubs, grass, moss and even surface peat to act as fuel. Even wetter landscapes (bogs, ferns marshes) are becoming vulnerable to burning.

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