Scientists have warned that global warming and unethical logging practices have led to a rapid rise in forest fires, with the rate at which the forests are consumed by flame spiralling out of control, from 2 million hectares burned 20 years ago to a staggering 22 million hectares last year.

To put that in context, that is an area larger than mainland Britain and almost ten times the area of forest destroyed in Brazil last year, which was one of the worst years for the Amazon rainforests on record.

Around one fifth of the world’s forests grow in the taiga region which as well as being a vital habitat for threatened wildlife the huge swathe of boreal forest is considered the lungs of Europe, acting as a sink for tons of pollution that float over from the industrialised west.

Despite the scale of the problem the plight of the northern forests seems to be all but ignored by the outside world, and the Russian authorities themselves seem unwilling to invest the resources needed to control the fires.

Scientists and forestry workers monitoring the situation complain they receive very little funding and are almost penniless, ironically unable to afford sophisticated Russian fire planes built for the export market.

The researchers at the Sukachev Institute of Forest in Krasnoyarsk say the forests face a two-pronged fire risk.

The effects of climate change have been felt in the far north perhaps more than anywhere else in the world and are rapidly warming the forests, drying out the wood and thawing the permafrost that once protected the trees by slowing the spread of fires.

This leaves the forests far more vulnerable to fires from lightning strikes, but there is another threat that dwarfs the natural risks.

Conservation laws designed to protect the virgin forests are being exploited by unscrupulous logging companies which are actually torching huge tracts of forest to save themselves money.

Permits to fell the pristine forest are expensive and hard to come by, but permits to clear burned areas are much more affordable and easier to acquire, as removing the burned trees is almost seen as a service by the Government.

And while the trees felled may have suffered some damage in the fire, there is still plenty of good, valuable timber let to make the exercise worthwhile.

The impact of the fires are global, with a plume of smoke from last summer’s blaze reaching Japan and even affecting air quality in cities along the northwestern coast of the USA.

But perhaps most importantly the destruction of the forests represents a severe dent in efforts to cut carbon dioxide emissions, as the trees absorb huge quantities of the greenhouse gas.

“We should try to protect our forests, because they are the lungs of the planet,” said Anatoly Sukhinin, head of the forest fire laboratory at the Sukachev Institute.

“But it looks to me like these huge forests are being devoured by a powerful lung cancer.”

By Sam Bond

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