The Collapse of Socialism and the Rise of Fire in Kalmykia
The breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991 had far-reaching implications, some of which occurred immediately, others following a short time lag, and others we have not yet witnessed. Kalmykia, a rural region of Russia on the shores of the Caspian Sea is an area dominated by livestock grazing. The political shift resulted in strong decline in agricultural subsidies leading in sharp decrease in livestock numbers and thus, grazing pressure, which resulted in recovering vegetation and ultimately an abundance of fuels, which are ready to burn.
When a forest burns, the change in the vegetation is dramatic and the recovery is slow. In contrast, effects of wildfires in grasslands are not as conspicuous and recovery happens quickly, often the same year of the fire. These characteristics require novel methods to map wildfires in grasslands accurately. (photo-stipa-green-nonburned and photo-burned-area)
After 1996 there was a dramatic increase in the area of land burned each year (Figure 1). Maxim and his colleagues propose this is a direct result of the socioeconomic changes. You might wonder how a political shift might result in such a change and why there was a five year time lag? With the socio-economic change, livestock subsidies were eliminated, and farmers could no longer afford to keep their animals (Figure 2). The result was a dramatic decrease in grazing pressure and an abundance of grass that was ready to burn.
This is just one part of the story of fires in Russia. Next steps of Maxim’s project involve a more robust statistical study of causes of such change (including various human and environmental factors) and Maxim studying the changes in vegetation types, especially a shift from Artemisia shrublands to Stipa dominated grasslands, that might have been caused by the more frequent fires.