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'What has enabled Russia to rise among the great powers of the world…has been the conquest of Siberia'
W.Bruce Lincoln

Buryatia: where thawing permafrost turns to steppe before our eyes

By Olga Gertcyk
11 September 2015

Is global warming the real cause of the raging wildfires sweeping this Siberian republic? 

Biologists say they can prove that parts of Buryatia are turning into steppe based on the monitoring of local plants.  Picture: Sergey Lesnyansky

Buryatia has been hit in summer 2015 by the massive destruction of its pristine forests in a series of fast-spreading fires. Most shocking have been the scenes - pictured here - showing uncontrolled burning around Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake in the world, containing 20% of the globe's unfrozen freshwater. 

Local scientists have accumulated startling evidence of the changes in temperature which are turning the region's permafrost - established over many millennia - into steppe. Average annual temperatures in a rising number of areas are exceeding zero degrees Celsius.

A debate will go on as to whether this is linked to global warming, and - indeed - whether clear research is underway which can establish this. Local experts seem to doubt this. Yet biologists say they can prove that parts of Buryatia are turning into steppe based on the monitoring of local plants. 

Steppe


Steppe

As the climate becomes drier, the territory covered in forests and meadows reduces, while the dry steppe - arid grass plains with few trees -  increases. Pictures: Sergey Lesnyansky

Oleg Anenhonov, head of the laboratory of Floristics and Geobotanics at the Institute of General and Experimental Biology, said: 'A rapidly increasing average annual temperature has been observed over the past two or three decades. 

'That is why [average annual] temperature in some regions, including Ulan-Ude, became positive. Merely 20-to-30 years ago, the average annual temperature was below zero, but year after year it had been consistently growing and now exceeds 0C.'

Warming caused the upper layer of permafrost to become deeper - and where it is thin, to disappear altogether. 'The average annual precipitation isn't changing, but it evaporates more easily which causes the climate to get drier. This results in changes in flora. It becomes more monotonous, dominated by drought-resistant plants.' 

As the climate becomes drier, the territory covered in forests and meadows reduces, while the dry steppe - arid grass plains with few trees -  increases. 'Apart from that, there are changes in terms of the radial growth of trees. In dry lands, including Selenginskyi and Kyakhtinskyi districts, growth slows down. 

Wildfires on Baikal


Baikal on fire


Wildfires on Baikal


Baikal on fire

Currently, some 55,000 hectares remain ablaze in Buryatia. Pictures: Anton Klimov, Anna Baskakova, Oksana Gromyko

'It is not very obvious because annual rings of pines grow by 2-3 mm a year. But if you multiply hundreds of thousands of these trees by one mm lost, the amount of wood will be hundreds if not thousands of cubic metres.'

He added: 'It is quite a common thesis that global climate change manifest in an increase in frequency of extreme weather conditions. More frequent droughts, abnormally warm winters, frequent rains is a consequence of global climate changes.' 

Currently, some 55,000 hectares remain ablaze in Buryatia. In other regions, the figures are 46,000 hectares in Krasnoyarsk and 11,000 in Irkutsk.

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