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What has been going on with our natural environment over the past few decades? Are we sliding down into a global climatic catastrophe, or is this simply a chain of different natural calamities? What has to be done without delay to ensure the safety of our population? Our special correspondent Rudolf Balandin turned with these and other questions to Acad. Viktor Osipov, Director of the RAS Institute of Geoecology.
- Viktor Ivanovich, to begin with let me ask you about the validity of forecasts about steadily deteriorating situation in the biosphere*?
- There is no denying the fact that in the latter half of the 20th century the ecological situation on this planet sharply deteriorated. The number of natural and technogenic catastrophes has increased, accompanied by vast material losses and losses of life. Over the past 30 years nearly 1.4 mn people perished in the Asian-Pacific Region alone and the total number of victims approached 4 bn. In 1995 - 1999 the number of major natural calamities increased by more than three times on the average as compared with 1965-1969. Most common are tropical storms and floods (they account for some 32 percent of the total number of natural disasters), and then come earthquakes (12 percent) and droughts (10 percent).
The situation has also deteriorated in Europe which was regarded as relatively quiet until recently. From 1971 to 1996 it was hit by 163 floods and one of the most devastating ones-in June 1997-hit towns and villages in Czechia, Slovakia and Poland. The total losses were estimated at 4 bn dollars. In the year 2000 floods in the Italian and Swiss Alps and Great Britain and hurricanes "Anatol", "Loma" and "Martin" cost Western Europe about 15 bn dollars. In the summer of 2002 another "flood" hit Central Europe. In Czechia it hit 504 urban centers and towns. Flooded in Prague were 17 subway stations and water level rose by 8 - 9 m. The total damage was estimated at over 3 bn dollars.
- Your examples refer only to foreign countries. Does that mean that if and when such calamities happen in Russia they are regarded as something quite ordinary?
- No, this is not so. The rate of natural calamities in our country has also been growing, especially in recent years. According to the official statistics (MChS) from 1990 to 2002 a total of 2,350 emergencies linked with the environment were registered in this country. In 2002 alone there were 280 of them with the death toll of 332 and 336 thous. casualties. In a word, over the past 20 years the number of such calamities has nearly doubled.
One example-in June 2002 the south of European Russia was hit by a cyclone of unbelievable strength, accompanied by downpours, floods, landslides and mud torrents. The affected area included territories of 9 subjects of the Russian Federation, including 377 populated centers. Damaged or destroyed were tens of thousand homes, hundreds of bridges, nearly 200 water supply stations and the death toll reached 114. In August of the same year the Black Sea coast near Novorossiysk was hit by powerful sandstorms and showers. A month later shift of the Kolka glacier in the Genaldon river Valley (North Ossetia) which developed into a mud-laden torrent, took a total of 136 lives**. The total losses from these tragic events exceeded 20 bn rubles.
- One would like to think that thanks to the achievements of science and technology we should be able with time to pacify what poet Fyodor Tyutchev called "the unheeding demons"-the forces of earthly nature. But nothing of this kind is really taking place. Maybe the reason for that is our poor knowledge of our cosmic abode?
- Of course there is no denying the fact that specialists have not clarified to the end many things in the life of Nature. And these studies can go on without end. For example, we still cannot forecast accurately and with confidence the times of seismic blows. This
* See: Yu. Israel, "Threat of Climatic Catastrophe?", Science in Russia, No. 4, 2004. -Ed.
** See: L. Desinov, S. Desinov, "Catastrophe in Genaldon Valley", Science in Russia, No. 4, 2003. - Ed.
Rising numbers of major natural catastrophes in the world from 1965 to 2001 (mean annual figures for 5 years). From EM-DAT: The OFDA/CDED International Disaster Database.
realization is shared by the Americans and the Japanese who have built networks of observation stations. But recently US experts had to admit that the existing methods of tremor prognostication have not produced the expected results. And that means that we have to seek some basically new approaches linked with monitoring from space of different physical phenomena which are not directly associated with shifts of sections of the earth crust but are capable of reflecting and controlling this process*.
- And what about studies of climate anomalies?
- The way I see it, the situation here is also close to a deadlock. What is really going on with the climate? Are we in some perennial phase at the stage of cooling or warming? And there are no convincing answers to such questions.
- Could it be that the biosphere as a comprehensive organism, painfully responds to human interventions?
- Now it is hard to say whether the biosphere is really out of balance or not. It could be that some sections of the earth surface are already in extreme conditions, or regime. But we must not forget about nature's ability for self-regulation, for restoration. Although over the past few decades dangerous elemental processes occurred more and more often. In the past big cyclones hit the Pacific coast of the Far East 1 to 2 times a year, today this happens almost every month. The picture is the same in the eastern parts of the United States and in countries of the Caribbean. And such facts give grounds for concern.
Human interference on a global scale continues in the most conservative part of our environment-the lithosphere. By their scale the geological activities of people have become comparable with natural processes**. Today the construction of housing and industrial objects, roads and minerals prospecting involves shifting more than 100 bn tons of ground a year. This is about 4 times greater than the mass of earth carried by rivers of the world washing off their banks.
Intense economic activities produce large-scale changes in the natural environment increasing the rates of induced seismicity, subduction and flooding of territories, karst-suffusion sink holes and artificial geophysical fields***.
- In what way does, say, induced seismicity manifest itself?
It consists in the fact that powerful technogenic impacts stimulate additional stresses inside the planet, increasing the frequency of earthquakes, or acting as a "trigger" of a tectonic strike being prepared by nature. This is observed in the pumping of liquid and gaseous components into deep horizons of the earth crust (for boosting oil production, harmful
The most common natural catastrophes in the world from 1965 to 2001.
* See: V. Morgunov, "Earthquake Forecasts for Tomorrow", Science in Russia, No. 1, 2004. - Ed.
** See: R. Timofeev, "Destinies of Two Seas", Science in Russia, No. 6, 2003; E. Mirzoyan, "Noosphere: Inevitable as a Given", Science in Russia, No. 3, 2004. - Ed.
*** See: N. Kapustyan, "The Price of Progress", Science in Russia, No. 2, 2000. - Ed.
The number of major natural disasters in Russia from 1990 to 2002.
wastes disposal) and during the construction of big water reservoirs. The worst event of this kind occurred in India in December 1967 during the filling in of an artificial lake on the Koina River. Quakes of strength 8 and 9 with the epicenter 3 to 5 km south of the dam took a toll of 177 human lives. Similar events, although not so tragic, occurred in the 20th century in the United States, China, France, Greece, Zimbabwe, Tajikistan and other places.
- Excessive human activities, which shake even terra firma, are a stem warning to us. And technogenesis must be doing lots of harm to plants and animals, soils and waters and the atmosphere. In any case this is the impression one gets from numerous publications and reports in the media. But do you agree with that? Or what we are really dealing with are some local negative processes which can be ignored?
-No, of course not. The rate of decrease of biological diversity has become unprecedented. Added to the Red Letter Data Book have been 24 percent of mammals (1,130 species) and 12 percent (1,138) offish which are so far dwelling on this planet. And all of them are threatened with complete extinction.
The latter half of the 20th century saw a sharp increase of the number of dangerous hydro-meteorological phenomena. Say, floods have intensified because of the shrinking areas of marshlands and compaction of the soil cover which accelerate and boost surface drainage and discharges. Wiped out during the same period were 40 percent of forests-on an average of 14.6 mn hectares a year, and only a little more than one third of them were restored. Today the preserved area of forests amounts to only 21.4 percent of dry land. What this is fraught with is demonstrated by the example of the Yangtze river Valley in China. 75 percent of local forests were wiped out there in ten years of last century. And there were two major floods there with catastrophic consequences one after the other in 1998 and 1999. And the Chinese government had to take urgent measures, spending 3 bn dollars on planting forests in that region.
- And what can you say about the fears generated by that notorious global warming? How really serious is this problem?
- According to the World Meteorological Organization, temperature on our planet rose by about 0.8°C between 1860 and 1998. The warming has especially accelerated over the past few years. There were several exceptionally warm seasons during the 1980s and mid-1990s, and 1998 turned out to be extremely warm over the whole period of such changes on Earth.
One of the indicators of that process has been the shrinking depth of icepack in the Arctic: from 3.12 m in the 1960s, down to 1.8 m in the 1990s. The area of propagation of seasonal sea ice has been constantly dwindling- by 2.8 percent over a decade. Similar changes have been observed on shelf glaciers of Antarctica*.
In the Caucasus, in Georgia, glaciers retreated by 0.8 - 1.7 km over the past century and a half with their total area being reduced by 16 percent. On Africa's highest Mount Kilimanjaro they have diminished by 55 percent since 1962, and since the start of such observations (1912) by 82 percent. Warming has been registered practically all over the territory of Russia.
- Somehow one gets the impression that the main problem consists not in the general gradual decrease or increase of the mean temperature on our planet, but in sharpening contrasts of our climate and weather. It is they which affect most both human health and catastrophic phenomena we discussed. Would it be fair to speak of the system of atmospheric circulation running out of balance?
- The way I see it, analyzing the problem of climatic anomalies at the regional level is more important than global studies where changes are not so sharply expressed. And local changes produce sharper contrasts and occur within shorter intervals of time. They are provoked as a rule by the felling of forests, changes of landscapes and suchlike purely technogenic interferences with our environment.
And there are some objective factors in support of the aforesaid. For example, increased amplitudes of short-time changes of temperature and the repetition of anomalous phenomena associated with bitter frosts and high positive temperatures, stormy winds, snowfalls and heavy rains. Periods of weather changes which used to be of 6 - 7 days, have been reduced to only 3 or 4.
- So, what is the cause of all such anomalies?
- There is no one simple answer to that question. Many scientists blame changes in the composition of the atmosphere caused by human activities. There has appeared the theory of "hothouse effect" caused by higher lev-
* See: V. Kotlyakov, "Environment, Its Past and Future: Glaciology Bears Witness", Science in Russia, N. 1, 2001. - Ed.
els in the atmosphere of CO2 , methane (CH4 )* nitrogen oxide (N2 O) and chlorofluorocarbons. They block longwave heat emissions from the earth surface, reflecting solar rays. But the connection of the global warming with technogenic discharges of hothouse gases is not accepted by everyone**. And these are their arguments:
First, the CO2 level in the atmosphere is already "out of all proportions" as compared with the situation of several thousand vears aso durina the last climatic optimum when the mean temperature on the planet was 1 - 1.5°C above the present one. Second, discharges of the aforesaid gases can be associated not only with the burning of organic fuels, but also with changes of the environment like growing areas under farming, shrinking of forests, production of cement, etc. Although it is not clear what really comes first: whether changes in the chemical composition of the troposphere push up global temperature, or the other way round-rising temperature (for example, due to natural climatic cycles) produce higher levels of CO2 and other gases in the air because of their discharges by the World Ocean. Some people think that the priority role in the climate changes on our plant belongs to oceanic currents***.
- So, can one assume that technogenic impacts have little effect on contemporary climate systems?
- No, this is really not so. Very high rates of accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere and temperature changes in the near-surface layer, which had never been observed before, attest to the contrary. This has been acknowledged by more than 1,000 experts from
* See: G. Golitsyn, "Methane... and Hothouse Effect", Science in Russia, No. 6, 2002. - Ed.
** See: V. Naidenov, V. Shveikina, "But Water Has Still Multiplied on Earth...", Science in Russia, No. 5, 2000. - Ed.
*** See: A. Sarkisyan, "Mathematical Analogue of World Ocean", Science in Russia, No. 5, 2003. - Ed.
different countries belonging to the Inter-Government Group on Changes of the Climate. They point out in their statement that new and more convincing proofs have been obtained of the fact that climate warming observed over the past 50 years is mainly the result of anthropogenic activities. And it is also very probable that the warming which occurred in the 20th century largely contributed to the rising level of the World Ocean because of the thermal expansion of sea water and widespread thawing of continental ice.
Scientists of many countries are developing models of atmospheric dynamics*. According to forecasts prepared on their basis by the middle of the 21st century global temperature can rise by 1.5 - 2.7°C. And according to other forecasts, the maximum rise can be of 3.5°C. It is commonly believed that climate changes in high latitudes must be greater than in the tropics. And this is supported by data for Russia's northern regions: over the past 35 years air temperature there rose by about three times as compared with the global increase of 1 - 1.5°C.
- No matter what one can say about the causes of this global warming, there is no denying the fact of its existence. So, what could be its negative consequences?
- One of the most serious threats is the thawing of ice in Greenland, Antarctica and on highlands. As a result the level of the World Ocean by the year 2030 can rise by 14 - 24 cm, and according to some data by up to 60 cm (and there is also an optimistic forecast of 5 cm only). Many countries will be hit by stronger and more frequent floods, increased coastal erosion and destruction of coastal protections. With the level of the World Ocean rising by 0.5 m, the Netherlands will have to find 3.5 trln dollars for the protection of low-lying areas from flooding.
Another consequence of climate warming is rising temperatures of annually frozen rock and degradation of "permafrost". Over the past 30 - 35 years alone air temperature in the north of European Russia rose by 0.6 - 0.8°C, in Western Siberia by 1.6°C and in Yakutia by 1.4°C. Over the past 20 years frozen ground in the area of Vorkuta has become warmer by 2 - 2.5°C at the depth of 3 m and by 1°C at the depth of 10 m. And there is a similar picture in Western Siberia. Progressing there are such dangerous processes as thermocrust, sinking of the ground surface because of the thawing of ice, formation of ice bodies etc. This will certainly accentuate the problem of safety of populated centers, roads and gas and oil industrial objects during the development of the mineral resources of the region. A general "sinking" of the territories accompanied by a certain rise of the sea level will promote the transgression** of the Arctic Ocean and a retreat of the coastline into the continent by tens and probably hundreds of kilometers.
- You have cited so much data about the deteriorating general and local conditions on the Earth, that one can't help thinking that the situation is not only catastrophic, but really hopeless. Are there any ways of averting such negative processes in the biosphere?
- There is no denying the fact that the situation is certainly alarming. Considering the importance of the problems, the United Nations in the 1990s developed a strategy of averting natural cataclysms. It is based on the principles of timely prognostication and prevention of natural calamities.
Different countries now are busy developing methods of risk assessments and prepare the necessary maps. This will make it possible to prepare qualitative prognostications of the possible number of victims and material damage from such dangerous processes, determine priorities in the economic development of various regions.
- Is anything of this kind being done in our own country?
- Yes, of course. For example, a team of specialists of the All-Russia Scientific-Research Institute of Problems of Civil Defense and Emergencies of the Center of Studies of Extreme Situations and the RAS Institute of Geo-ecology have created a map individual seismic risk. This demonstrates the probability of loss of human lives from earth tremors within a given territory. The values obtained vary from negligibly small (Western and Central Siberia, most of the European Russia) to very high ones (regions of the Caucasus, Zabaikalye, Kamchatka, Sakhalin and the Kuriles).
The next step is drawing up maps of "individual complex risk" from various natural hazards. And a more complicated task is assessing the possible material losses. That requires an assessment of the conditions of residential and industrial objects, etc.
- But what can really be done for dealing with catastrophes big and small? There are some global projects of climate improvement***. But they all look rather fantastic against the background of some current events in the world. So, what can really be done in that respect in the near future?
- What matters most is a systematic watch over the development of natural hazards, timely transmission and processing of the obtained data, urgent notification of the population about approaching threats. In many countries, including Russia, they are building federal monitoring systems. With the support of the United Nations there have been appearing in recent years the necessary international observation centers; and space technology is being applied on a growing scale. Finally, of no little importance is the task of keeping the public aware of the looming threats and progression of natural calamities. In other words, we need systematic work for the "ecological education" of the public. That alone can help us deal successfully with the threats of natural disasters.
Illustrations provided by V. Osipov
* See: V. Dymnikov, "Computer Models of Terrestrial Processes", Science in Russia, No. 3, 2004. - Ed.
** Transgression - flooding of the coast by the sea caused by its subsidence, rising of the bottom of the ocean or growing volume of water in oceanic basin, such as from melting of glaciers. - Ed.
*** See: R. Balandin, "Climate to Order", Science in Russia, No. 1, 2004. - Ed.
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