Monday, June 16, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Diverting Siberian Rivers to Central Asia Would Threaten Planet, Russian Academic Warns

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 16 – Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s revival of the idea of diverting the waters of Siberian rivers to the increasingly parched countries of Central Asia would threaten not only those regions but the world with “ecological catastrophe,” according to a leading Russian specialist on the environment.
In a comment to Rosbalt-Sever yesterday, Academician Vladimir Anikeyev, chief ecologist at Russian Academy of Economic Sciences, said that Luzhkov’s proposals, which involve selling the waters of the Ob to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, were so dangerous that prosecutors should consider bringing “criminal” charges against him.
In Soviet times, Moscow needed cotton, Anikeyev noted, and consequently it drew down the flows of the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya to the point that the Aral Sea has dried up and dangerous chemical flats have been created, places that threaten the lives of the peoples living around them (
Just sending more water to that region would not solve the problem, he said. Indeed, if nothing else is changed, it could compound the difficulties that region. And reducing flows into the Arctic Ocean, he added, could “violate the entire temperature balance of the planet,” threatening not only Russia as a whole but places far removed from it.
Consequently, the Russian ecological expert said, he very much hoped that Luzhkov’s remarks, like others the longtime Moscow mayor has made over the years, were simply a “populist” outburst and that no one in the Russian government would seriously try to realize them.
Meanwhile, Russia and other countries with northern territories face another and perhaps even more intractable challenge, one that Luzhkov’s plan could exacerbate: the discovery that the rapid retreat of sea ice in the Arctic is leading to an even more rapid melting of permafrost in these countries (
According to the findings of the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), “the rate of climate warming over northern Alaska, Canada and Russia could more than triple during periods of rapid sea ice loss,” like the one this year, and thus lead to a far more rapid thawing of the permafrost there.
During such periods, the NCAR study found, “the rate of Arctic land warming is 3.5 times greater than the average 21st century warming rates predicted in global climate models,” a finding that could mean, it continued that “autumn temperatures” along the Arctic coasts of Russia, Alaska and Canada could rise “by as much as” five degrees centigrade.
Such a rise, the American research team said, could create a “talik – a layer of permanently unfrozen soil sandwiched between the seasonally frozen layer above and the perennially frozen layer below,” something that “allows heat to build up more quickly in the soil, hastening the long-term thaw of permafrost.”
Not only does that threaten to release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere thus accelerating global warming, but it means that the ground there will be increasingly unstable threatening all construction – pipelines, buildings, and other facilities – located in the north.
Because so much of the Russian Federation is in the traditional permafrost zone and because so much of Moscow’s energy resources are located in it, the impact of these changes are likely to be felt in Russia and on those who rely on its petroleum exports even before they are felt elsewhere.
(For more details on this new research and its impact on Russia and the world, see David Lawrence, Andrew Slater, Robert Tomas, Marika Holland, and Clara Deser, “Accelerated Arctic land warming and permafrost degradation during rapid sea ice loss,” Geophysical Research Letters, June 13, 2008.)

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