What's going on in Siberia

Forest fires in Siberia: the disaster that is hardly noticed

by Peter Carstens
The forest fire season in the Arctic could be even worse in 2020 than in 2019. But there is no public outrage. Have we got used to the "new abnormal"?

+++ Column "Everything in the green area" +++

When the Arctic burned last year, the news turned over: coniferous forests in the northern polar circle, in the coldest regions of the world, in bright flames. That appeared new. A blazing beacon of the climate crisis - and fresh fuel for the protests of the Fridays for Future movement. Rightly. Because there has always been fire in Siberia in the summer. It has also long been known that average temperatures in the Arctic rise faster than anywhere else on earth. But the dimension of the fires was indeed historical. And they are examples of feedback effects that are as dangerous as they are difficult to calculate and that cause climate researchers to frown deep worries.

Forest fires release huge amounts of carbon dioxide

With peaks well over 30 degrees, the Arctic is experiencing an unprecedented stress test. Not only trees are burning, but also peat soils, in which carbon dioxide has been stored for 15,000 years. Permafrost thaws and releases not only the CO2 but also methane, which is far more harmful to the climate. Gigantic amounts of greenhouse gases and other pollutants also heat up the climate - and thus contribute to even more fires in the future.

This future is not sometime. But now: According to researchers, the fires in Arctic Russia in June and July alone released more carbon dioxide than in any full forest fire season since records began in 2003.

New negative records lose their news value

But strange: The ongoing catastrophe hardly plays a role in the reporting. Two possible explanations arise. They affect our view of the climate crisis as a whole:

The first is obvious: the coverage of the corona pandemic overshadows everything else. The risk of infection in the office or supermarket is more interesting than a fire in the almost deserted expanse of Siberia. This is understandable because the Covid-19 virus is a concrete threat to our health and that of our relatives and friends. But the longer the Corona crisis lasts, the greater the risk that the more serious and long-lasting climate crisis will be pushed out of our consciousness. And it slips back down on the priority list of politics.

The second explanation also concerns our perception: We have got used to the “new abnormal”. Reports of furious fires, as recently in Australia, on the Amazon or in Siberia, of record heat waves and droughts, of devastating storms and floods have lost their news value (and appeal). We are, so to speak, oversaturated with climate catastrophes. It is not cynical to state that devastating weather anomalies and disasters of global proportions are normal in the age of climate crisis. And it won't come at some point. She is already here.

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