Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Moscow Burning

It's a surreal scene in Moscow today. This unprecedented heatwave, the hottest Russia has endured since they began keeping records 130 years ago, has caused numerous forest and peat bog fires in the surrounding area to break out, and the smoke from these fires hangs over the city like a death shroud.

For the past week I've awoken every morning to something that smells like burning grass. A haze of grey smoke drifts throughout the city, through everyone's windows (kept wide open because of the heat) and reduces visibility to a few hundred yards. Everything in my apartment is covered in a light blanket of silky sediment and it is a constant battle to keep electronic equipment, and my fan in particular, clean. The city itself appears as if though it is slowly smoldering, and it reminds me of a scene from Dante's Inferno.

The local fire departments are combating the forest fires with some success, but the peat bog fires are nearly impossible to extinguish. The fires themselves are under the surface, and simply dousing water on the ground does nothing to put them out. In order to effectively fight them hundreds of miles of ditches filled with water need to be dug and Moscow simply doesn't have the resources for such an undertaking. I doubt any city in the world could pull it off.

In July I had Beeline hook up the internet in my new flat and as a promotion they offered me two months of free digital cable. I now have 200 channels, including all the Discovery network channels (which I can watch in English thanks to the modern technology of the digital cable box). Last week Katya and I were watching the news on Russia 1 and a scientist was showing the public why these peat bog fires are breaking out.

She had a one-metre long thermometre stuck into the ground in a grassy clearing and a bunch of monitoring equipment surrounding it. The temperature on the surface, under the relentlessly blazing sun, was an astounding 44 degrees centigrade! She pulled the thermometer out of the ground and the temperature one metre down read 33 degrees! Under the effects of a vicious sun and a long waterless drought, the peat and other plants below the surface are bursting into flames.

In my life I have endured some strange weather. My earliest memories include a tornado taking my bicycle away in Ontario. I have sweltered in the heat of south-east Asia and endured the biting cold of a Russian (and Canadian, for that matter) winter. I remember vicious windstorms cropping up in the Pacific and knocking down trees and houses on the coast. Like everyone everywhere, I stand in awe of the power of mother nature. This summer in Moscow, however, is the most insufferable weather I have ever encountered.

The classrooms at central school are veritable furnaces. There is no air conditioning in the building (like almost everywhere else in Moscow) and the big windows are sealed to keep heat in during the winter. The sun blazes down through the windows into the classroom and I have had one student pass out from the heat. I myself have had my vision go black and seen stars dancing around in front of my eyes. Night time is just as bad, as the sweltering heat causes everyone to sweat profusely in bed. Even with my fan on high I sweat like a pig because the fan simply blows hot, moist air on me like a convection oven. I manage a few hours of sleep at night, taken in snatches of exhaustion, and I know that almost all 15 million Muscovites are suffering through the same torments. Even Katya, who weighs in at a mere 100 lbs and gets cold simply thinking about ice cubes, is sweltering.

The heatwave continues unabated and there is no end in sight. Soon Russians will have been enduring this record-breaking heat for two months and with air conditioning absent from almost everywhere there is little anyone can do to cool down. I have 4 1/2 weeks left here and will soon find myself standing in a cool ocean breeze on Canada's Pacific coast, but for everyone else in Moscow, the only hope is that winter will come early this year.

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