Russian Peat fires are creating more environmental havoc than Deepwater

Moscow has been experiencing its hottest weather since at least 1981 but the inhabitants cannot enjoy the hot weather. This is because Moscow has been experiencing an environmental disaster as peat fires, set off by 64 forest fires fill the lungs of the Muscovites with acrid smoke containing much higher than normal particulates, nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen monoxide, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Visibility is down to 500 metres and pollution levels are nearly eight times the norm, which is a terrible state of affairs for the inhabitants.

Peat fires usually break out when people throw cigarettes or burning matches carelessly into peat bogs or forests. Very hot spells of weather the risk is extremely great and peat bog fires have broken out in Orekhovo-Zuyevo and in Shatura and the smog, for thus it is, has settled over the city and even if the fires could be put out rapidly, experts fear that the smog conditions could prevail for months.

Those who have difficulty in breathing or with long disease have been advised to stay inside. The authorities have recommended that those who venture outside, particularly in the eastern part of the region, should wear protective gauze across their mouths and noses in order to provide some filter of the toxic particles.

The peat bogs have largely been drained and the climate of the region tends to long hot dry summers. This dries the upper layer of the peat, which is easy to dry because of the drainage that has been installed. The region then has what amounts to a peat based soil, and if money were no object this would be cultivated only if a layer of sand (to act as a fire barrier) was created under the peat soil. Money of course is an object and no Russian farms have used this technique, but cultivate directly on the peat soil. If a fire starts on this soil it burns downwards and is very hard to extinguish.

The region has frequently suffered from peat fires but the present fires seem the worst. They will degrade the soil of organic material, making it much harder and more expense to farm, effectively burning the soil, typically about 100 cm deep, to its bedrock.

As the peat burns an ash is created which settles into water courses, streams and lakes significantly increasing the alkalinity and depositing water soluble elements like lead, copper and nicle to levels above their minimum safety levels and it can take several years for the concentrations of these minerals to reduce.

Of course the additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is something that the planet could do without. If you burn a cubic metre of peat you will release around 150 cubic metres of carbon dioxide into the air. The peat has acted as a carbon sink and has taken 300 years to accumulate. A forest after a fire takes “only” fifty years to re establish, so the extent of the Russian peat fires this year are an environmental disaster for the planet which will be much more serious and claim as many livelihoods but more lives than the Deepwater oil disaster.