Zombie Fires Are Still Burning in the Coldest Inhabited City on Earth
The coldest place on Earth is burning because of zombie fires.
Oymyakon, Russia, which has the lowest winter temperatures of any city in the world with an average of 58°F below zero (50°C below zero) is generally considered the coldest inhabited area on Earth. Oymyakon’s lowest recorded temperature was a reading of 89.9°F below zero (67.7°C below zero) back in January 1924.
Even though Oymyakon means “unfrozen water” due to the thermal spring located nearby, the area is located in a permafrost zone, which means that the ground temperature is constantly 32°F below zero (0°C) and is permanently covered in snow.
Despite low temperatures, peat fires, also known as “zombie fires,” fueled by peat and methane, continue to burn in the area below the ground.
This means the fire underground can “come back to life” when the weather is dry.
Semyon Sivtsev, a photographer from Oymyakon, captured the smoke emerging from the completely frozen ground and shared the images on his Instagram account.
He told the Siberian Times, “I filmed them near to grasslands close to the village of Khara Tumul, not far from Oymyakon. It was in the area where wildfires were burning in the summer.”
The wildfire in the Tomponsky district of Yakutia started back in May 2021, forced the Russian authorities to declare a state of emergency for northeast Siberia. The fire burned 45 million acres (18.16 million hectares) of forest in Russia this year and stayed burning underground through winter.
Sivtsev said he knows a case when such zombie fires burned for several years in the nearby area of Mundullakh, and were extinguished by a combination of snowmelt and heavy rains. He continued, “As a result, a lake formed in this place four years ago. The peat burns down and is replaced by water. This was also aided by the permafrost thawing and in several recent years, we have had heavy rains in summer. Only last summer was relatively dry.”
Having carbon-rich soils, created by plants slowly decaying over thousands of years, fires in the peatlands such as this one can emit a record amount of 244 megatonnes of carbon dioxide.
Scientists have found that the occurrences of “zombie fires” are closely linked to climate change. Data shows that such fires happen after forest fires during hot and long summers.
Natasha Caudill is a social media influencer and accessibility advocate debugging the monochrome world for you. She speaks to Interesting Engineering about her life experiences, social media interactions, advocacy, and being a part of NASA's unveiling of the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope.