[Marxism] Huge rise in Siberian forest fires puts planet at risk, scientists warn

Jack Cade jack.cade at btinternet.com
Tue May 31 08:52:03 MDT 2005

Huge rise in Siberian forest fires puts planet at risk,
scientists warn

Tim Radford in Krasnoyarsk

London Guardian, Tuesday 31 May

Fires in the Siberian forests -the largest in the world and vital
to the planet's health - have increased tenfold in the last 20
years and could again rage out of control this summer, Russian
scientists warn.

They say they have neither the money nor the equipment to control
or extinguish the huge forests fires often started illegally and
deliberately in the Russian far east by rogue timber firms who
plan to sell cheap lumber to China.

In 2003, one of the hottest summers in Europe, 22m hectares of
spruce, larch, fir, Scots pine and oak were destroyed, charred,
scorched or in some way affected by fire. On one day in June that
year, a US satellite recorded 157 fires across almost 11m
hectares, sending a plume of smoke that reached Kyoto 5,000
kilometres (3,107 miles) away.

Forests absorb carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen.
The world's forests are part of the calculations behind the Kyoto
agreement, ratified by Russia, Britain and many other nations,
but not the US or Australia, to control the greenhouse emissions
that fuel global warming.

Forests have also become part of the currency of exchange, called
carbon trading, intended to keep economies stable while limiting
emissions overall. Most attention has been focused on the steady
destruction of the surviving Amazon and Indonesian forests.

But the so-called "boreal" forests of Siberia, slow-growing but
huge, are equally vital. They became a global issue in 2003, when
so many fires raged in Siberia and the Far East that atmospheric
scientists identified their smoke and soot in Seattle, on the far
side of the Pacific.

"You should try to protect your forests, because they are the
lungs of the planet: they absorb carbon dioxide," said Anatoly
Sukhinin, of the Sukachev Institute of Forestry in Krasnoyarsk,
the once-closed Siberian centre where the British Council has
just opened Zero Carbon City, a touring exhibition on global
warming. "It looks to me like these huge forests are currently
being devoured by a powerful lung cancer."

Russia's forests stretch almost from the steppes of central Asia
to the Arctic permafrost, and from European Russia almost to the
Bering Sea. Vast areas are almost pristine, the preserve of
migrating birds and the occasional hunter and trapper.

In the north, the trees grow slowly, some reaching the age of
400-500 years, and are vulnerable to any disturbance. In the
south, the forests become cluttered with dry underbrush, and at
risk from electrical storms. But the biggest threats come from
climate change and deliberate arson by people intent on illegal

"One factor is global warming, and there is absolutely no doubt
that this is happening. Global warming results in more extreme
droughts: greater droughts, longer droughts, and more frequent
droughts. The other factor is underfunding. We cannot do a good
job to preserve and protect our forests," Dr Sukhinin said.
"There is very little money to fund such work. We have some
equipment left from the old times, we have some organisational
support, but we are critically underfunded by the government."

Cooperation with US and Canadian partners means that they get the
big picture from US government satellites.

In the enormous expanses of Siberia, they need specialised
firefighting aircraft. The government in Moscow has designed and
made some, but sells or leases them to other countries. Even when
the foresters can identify the areas ablaze, they can do little.

The forests are at risk in early spring - after the dry cold of
the Arctic winter - and in high summer, when temperatures soar.
Fires in the forests are a threat to oil and gas pipelines, to
wildlife and to the permafrost itself. Heat from the blazing
underbrush and the parched canopy can disperse the clouds in a
fierce thermal updraft, melting the frozen soil and leaving
behind a landscape of charred stumps and dripping swamp.

On top of natural hazards, the Russian scientists count the risk
of arson.

Paradoxically, forests have become money to burn. Licences to log
healthy forest are expensive. But timber merchants and logging
companies can buy cheap licences to clear stands of timber in
some way damaged by fire.

Forests quickly recover from fires which rage through the
underbrush. Many trees have adapted to survive periodic
ground-level fire, and flourish on the ashes of their more lowly

"After a fire, the timber improves and is even better," said Dr
Sukhinin. "And that is the time when people can come in, fell the
trees, sell the timber to China and get good money.

"The Chinese themselves, they pay well and they pay the same
money for timber from affected areas as for timber from
unaffected areas - and that is the reason for the arsonists. It's
illegal if you don't have a licence."


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