It's hard to know right now whether the situation in Russia will become known as the Great Fires or the Great Heat Wave of 2010 (or both), but one thing seems certain: it's going to get worse before it gets better.
Already hundreds of people have died as smoke from hundreds of wildfires burning outside Moscow blankets the city. Exposure to ground level ozone, toxic microscopic particles and other pollutants is likely to drive that number far higher.
For one car full of folks, the fires were particularly terrifying. Driving in the Nizhny Novgorod region of central Russia last week, they were lucky to escape from a wildfire with their lives, and this harrowing video:
Still, data on pollution levels in the city are sparse for the moment, making it hard to assess how many of the ten million people in Moscow are likely to be hospitalized or killed due to the pollution. But anyone exposed to this kind of pollution is undoubtedly at higher risk of stroke, heart attack, asthma, lung infections, and a host of other ailments.
"It's possible that a very large percentage of the population will be affected," Jonathan Levy of Harvard University told Discovery News. "Premature deaths will be a much smaller number; they will be at the top of the pyramid of effects."
He cautioned that it's still too early to tell, but added that this pollution event could turn out to be similar in scope to the infamous Great Smog of 1952 in London, which is thought to have killed 12,000 people and launched the field modern air pollution epidemiology.
Then there is the heat. Temperature readings at the Moscow airport hit 99 degrees Fahrenheit today (37 degrees Celsisus), marking the fifth time in two weeks that the mercury has matched or exceeded the all-time high of 37.2 C set back in 1920. According to Jeff Masters at Weather Underground, it's the worst heat wave in the region in the last 1,000 years.
Masters further writes:
...these grim statistics suggest that in Moscow alone, the Great Russian Heat Wave of 2010 has likely killed at least 7,000 people so far. A plot of the departure of July 2010 temperatures from average (Figure 1) shows that the area of Russia experiencing incredible heat is vast, and that regions southeast of Moscow have the hottest, relative to average. Moscow is the largest city in Russia, with a population just over ten million, but there are several other major cities in the heat wave region. These include Saint Petersburg, Russia's 2nd most populous city (4.6 million), and Nizhny Novgorod, Russia's 5th most populous city (1.3 million people.) Thus, the Russian population affected by extreme heat is at least double the population of Moscow, and the death toll in Russia from the 2010 heat wave is probably at least 15,000, and may be much higher. [...] I expect that by the time the Great Russian Heat Wave of 2010 is over, it may rival the 2003 European heat wave as the deadliest heat wave in world history.
Here's the graphic he cites: