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Are Siberian swamps a global threat?


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Tatyana Sinitsyna.) Last week, the British press (the Guardian, The Times, and The Daily Telegraph) warned of "swamp terrorism" from Siberia.

Citing experts, the newspapers claimed that the permafrost covering Siberian swamps is rapidly thawing due to climatic warming. They said that billions of tons of methane could be released into the air causing an ecological disaster.

Academician Vladimir Melnikov spoke to RIA Novosti about the problem. Melnikov is the director of the world's only Institute of the Earth's Cryosphere. The Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute is located in the Siberian city of Tyumen and investigates the ways in which ground water becomes ice and permafrost.

"This is just another scare story, this time about the Siberian swamps." This was Melnikov's first reaction when asked by RIA Novosti to comment on claims by The Daily Telegraph that thawing Siberian permafrost could cause an ecological crisis.

Russia is situated in one of the coldest parts of the planet. As much as 60% of its territory is covered with permafrost, which extends to the border with China in the south. "It is, however, a mistake to speak of the Siberian swamps as being all permafrost," he said. "This is not so, because ordinary swamps cover vast areas." Melnikov said that the swamp zone in Western Siberia was growing, but then added, "This ecological structure is balanced and is not about to harm people with gas discharges." He pointed out an interesting consequence of the growth of the swamp zone: As the water-covered surface increases, it gives off more evaporation, and this process generates cold. "So, in a way, the swamps are compensating for global warming. There is simply no way that all the permafrost will melt," the scientist said.

He also refuted claims that the swamps are rapidly thawing and forming small lakes. "Both scientific findings and experience suggest that small lakes result from irregularities when laying oil and gas pipes and other engineering systems," Melnikov said. "But the scale on which new formations are appearing is small, and they do not pose any threat."

When asked if methane might erupt from the swamps and seriously pollute the atmosphere, Melnikov said, "The swamps are accumulating tremendous amounts of methane. This is an energy reserve for future generations, who will find a way to release it. Swamps are governed by the laws of nature, and we would need an exceptional reason to alter the natural course of things. A rise in temperature of one degree Celsius in the Siberian region in the 20th century cannot cause the permafrost to suddenly melt." He pointed out that the greatest man-made menace is not methane, but CO2, which is the principal greenhouse gas. "Through ignorance many people talk a lot about the 'methane threat' from the swamps, but say very little about their ability to retain and deposit CO2, thus doing a tremendous service to nature and mankind," he said.

Yuri Izrael, director of the Institute of Climatology and Ecology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, agrees that a catastrophic release of methane from the Siberian swamps is impossible. He says that the whole notion is misconceived. "The boundaries of the Russian permafrost zone remain virtually unchanged. At the same time, the permafrost is several hundred meters deep. For methane, other gases and hydrates to escape to the surface, it would have to melt at tremendous depths, which is impossible. In Yakutia, for example, the permafrost thaws by up to one and a half meters during summer. This is a normal phenomenon. In the 20th century, the temperature in Siberia rose by one degree Celsius, which was only 0.4 degrees more than in the Mediterranean (which rose by 0.6 degrees Celsius). But even if, as predicted, by the end of the 21st century temperatures have risen by three degrees, this will not be a catastrophe. The swamps are covered in vegetation. Bushes and moss grow above, and peat, which is an excellent insulator, is found below. Only a massive rise in temperature, which is unlikely in the foreseeable future, could alter the situation," Izrael said.

The Russian Academy of Sciences has found that the annual temperature of soils (with seasonable variations) has been remaining stable despite the increased average annual air temperature caused by climate change. If anything, the depth of seasonal melting has decreased slightly.

"Unscrupulous scientists are exaggerating and peddling fears about permafrost thawing and swamp methane becoming aggressive," said Professor Nikolai Alexeyevsky, Doctor of Geography and head of the land hydrology department at Moscow State University. "Siberia has vast natural resources, oil and gas above all. The article aims to set public opinion against Western Siberia and discourage investment in its industry, oil and gas. They are saying, 'Swamp methane poses a global threat, so don't touch Siberia.' They are deliberately trying to cause panic." Alexeyevsky says that permafrost has a natural cycle of change, and that it advanced and retreated in the pre-industrial era as well.

"It is likely that the next attack will be on rice paddies in China and India, which also release enormous quantities of methane. And this onslaught will likewise pursue economic and political, rather than environmental, aims: Namely, to reduce the production of rice, which is the staple food of these successfully developing nations," he said. "I would think otherwise if I were not analyzing the trends. The issue is seen from one specific self-interested angle, the aim of which is to discredit methane, as they managed to do in the past with freons and perfectly sound refrigeration freon-based technologies." He then added that corporations spent vast sums pursuing their own agendas, and involved unprincipled individuals in their campaigns.

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