No. 10: Russia Wildfires

Around the same time that one-fifth of Pakistan was drowning in flood waters, seven Russian regions were aflame, covering more than 300,000 acres. In July the hottest heat wave on record in Russia ignited widespread wildfires across the country’s peat marshes, filling the air with toxic fumes in a plume that could be seen from outer space. Dense smoke covered Moscow, delaying flights. Tourists in St. Petersburg saw czarist monuments shrouded in a gray smog.

As the fires raged for weeks, killing more than 50 and leaving 3,000 homeless, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin — ever the showman — joined the firefighting effort, dumping water onto flames from an airplane. Meanwhile, the world watched as the flames moved toward the Chernobyl site, raising the possibility of a worst-case scenario: the fires spreading to the radioactive waste and creating a nuclear nightmare.

Fortunately, in late August a sudden temperature drop and rainfall helped firefighters beat the flames into submission in the nick of time. Moscow residents, who’d been choking on 6.6 times the normal level of carbon monoxide, were able to walk the streets without surgical masks for the first time in days. The balmy weather was welcome after months of brutal heat and toxic smoke that had killed hundreds.

Although nuclear disaster was narrowly averted, Russia still faces grave consequences from the fires. The drought dried out one-third of the country’s wheat crop, and forced the country to stop grain exports through July 2011. The damage means that the country can’t sustain itself with its own grain supply and will have to import food. The steep increase in food prices is likely to nudge 1.4 million Russians into poverty, and the elderly are expected to be among the hardest hit. Furthermore, the tremendous cost of the recovery, estimated at around $15 billion, will certainly prevent Russia’s economy from emerging from the worldwide recession.

–Lisa Hix