Monday, August 2, 2010

Russia's Heat, Drought, and Fires - As Seen from Space

As the old saying goes, a picture is worth 1,000 words, and in this case a sequence of pictures shows exactly what's happened this summer in south western Russia, around the Volga River, in the region immediately north of the Caspian Sea. NASA's Earth Observatory satellites do an excellent job of showing views of major events as they happen.

Land Surface Temperature Anomaly, July 4-11 2010
First, at left we see a global map that shows temperature anomalies for July 4-11, as compared with the same dates from 2000 to 2008. These are the dates of the heat wave here on the US East Coast.  Note the extreme dark red in South Western Russia, stretching from approximately the Ukraine border through Russia' Volga region, and in to Kazakhstan.  The extreme red indicates temperatures of 12 degrees C (about 21 degrees F) above the average from last decade.  Indeed, on July 11, Russia's hottest temperature in history was recorded in Yashkul, at 44.0°C (111.2°F).

Second, at right, we see a satellite vegetation index image, that shows the damage done to plants and agriculture around the Volga river (pictured running through the center).  For location reference, Ukraine is in the bottom left portion of the map, with Kazakhstan in the bottom right.  In no area of this map is there any green, which would indicate above average vegitation. The darkest red areas show a reduction by over half. Note that this region is one of the main breadbaskets of Russia, and in some areas over 50% of the crop has already been lost. Potential losses from this area have driven wheat futures past $7 a bushel today, taking this grain's prices 67% above June's nine-month low.

Finally, at left, we see the satellite photo of the predictable consequences of heat and drought: fire.  The Volga River is labelled, and we see a haze of smoke extending across the entire region, completely covering Nizhiniy Novgorod.  Fires across Russia have killed at least 40 people so far this summer.  Today, President Medvedev declared a state of emergence in 7 regions across Russia, including Mari El, Ryazan, Mordovia, Vladimir, and Nizhny Novgorod (which are in this picture).  

The US National Intelligence Council, in its report on the national security implications of climate change in Russia, says that Russia's agriculture will become "more vulnerable to droughts and other extreme weather" over the next decades as global warming takes hold.  To add the usual caveat, you can never say that any one event is caused by global warming -- we have always seen drought and extreme weather -- but you can say this event is an example of what we should expect global warming to do.

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