Santa Claus isn’t supposed to see smoke. For the first time in recorded history, hazy smoke from raging wildfires in the Arctic has reached the North Pole, and NASA satellites have the images to prove it.
On Aug. 6, the space agency’s MODIS, an imaging sensor on the Aqua satellite, captured true-color images of what NASA called a “vast, thick, and acrid blanket of smoke” that clouded the North Pole. The smoke originated from enormous blazes in the Siberian region of northern Russia.
According to China’s Xinhua news agency, the Mongolian capital city of Ulaanbaatar was blanketed in “white smoke,” NPR reported. The republic of Yakutia – home to Oymyakon, the coldest inhabited place on Earth – has also been shrouded in smoke, as captured by MODIS images on Aug. 8.
The thick smoke in Yakutia sent air quality measurements in recent weeks plummeting to an extreme category dubbed “airpocalypse,” a category described by officials to have “immediate and heavy effects on everybody,” The Guardian reported.
In the images captured on Aug. 6, that “airpocalypse” inducing smoke was shown to have traveled 1,864 miles from Yakutia to the North Pole, according to NASA.
“The smoke, which was so thick that most of the land below was obscured from view, stretches about 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from east to west and 2,500 miles (4,000 km) from south to north,” the agency wrote. “But it captures only a small part of the smoke from the Russian fires.”
To reach Ulaanbaatar on Aug. 4, NASA added that the smoke needed to have traveled more than 1,200 miles. From there, it appeared to waft over nearly the entire Arctic Circle, impacting Nunavut, Canada, and areas of western Greenland.
Wildfires have been burning in Siberia more frequently than ever before. While the total number of burned acreage is difficult to determine in the remote area, Russia’s weather monitoring institute, Rosgidromet, said this week that close to 8.4 million acres were burning and more than 34.5 million total acres have been destroyed this season, the second-worst on record. For comparison, during the 2020 California wildfire season, which was the worst on record, just under 4.4 million acres were burned.
In the United States, Americans have seen firsthand this year how wildfire smoke can travel thousands of miles. Fires currently burning in California and Montana have drastically impacted air quality levels in cities such as Denver, located over 1,000 miles away from California’s Dixie Fire.
Americans themselves have also been on the receiving end of Siberian wildfire smoke, including in 2019 when wind currents carried smoke across the Pacific Ocean and into Alaska and northwestern Canada.