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Tower of Siberia: can this 302 metre skyscraper save our planet?

By Vera Salnitskaya and Olga Gercyk
07 October 2015

Unique research station in the remote taiga is used by scientists worldwide to measure if man is behind climate change.

ZOTTO - two metres taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris without its antenna, and five metres shy of London's tallest building The Shard - is fitted with precision instruments. Picture: Alexey Panov

Officially called the Zotino Tall Tower Observation facility (ZOTTO), this red and white spire soars 991 feet above the 'middle of nowhere' in Krasnoyarsk region, an ideal location - far from human influences - to measure how the concentration of greenhouse gases, aerosols, and the rising temperatures of the terrestrial atmosphere affect each other.

The structure - two metres taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris without its antenna, and five metres shy of London's tallest building The Shard - is fitted with precision instruments monitoring the concentration of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases and aerosols. Operating since 2006, the data is collected directly in a partly underground laboratory at the foot of the tower and then transferred to the V.N. Sukachev Institute of Forest, in Krasnoyarsk and after further proceeding to the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena (Germany).

The 20 hour odyssey through the wilderness to reach the tower is no mean feat: a 334 kilometre journey from Krasnoyarsk to Yeniseysk, then a 300-kilometre boat trip down the Yenisei River, followed by 25 km on a sand road from Zotino village to this remarkable scientific facility. 

ZOTTO


ZOTTO

ZOTTO spire soars 991 feet above the 'middle of nowhere' in Krasnoyarsk region, an ideal location - far from human influences. Pictures here and below: Vera Salnitskaya

Construction of ZOTTO was partly funded by Germany, and German engineers and mechanics visit the tower regularly for maintenance. But this outpost where winter temperatures can plummet to minus 50C is also home to four Russian operators, an engineer and two guards along with a cosmopolitan mix of researchers from leading world universities who may stay a few days or several months.

Their neighbours include brown bears that sometimes approach the tower, which takes around one hour to climb, including pauses at the platforms every 12 metres. 

When it was first built, remote villagers feared it was a means of talking to aliens, yet despite its height as the tallest meteorological tower in Russia and its location in a place once called the 'middle of nowhere', it has a more down to earth purpose: to save the world by understanding the forces behind climate change, and measuring whether they are natural or manmade.   

Our guide to ZOTTO is Dr Alexey Panov, 33, a biologist from the V.N. Sukachev Institute of Forest, the research coordinator at this isolated but invaluable station. 'It wasn't a mere coincidence for Zotino to become the location for the tower,' he explained in the shadow of the vast structure. Researchers started working here at the end of 1990s when a little 30-metre micro meteorological mast was erected nearby at this site for Eddy covariance measurements of carbon exchange between forest and the atmosphere.

Alexey Panov


ZOTTO


ZOTTO


ZOTTO


ZOTTO

Our guide to ZOTTO is Dr Alexey Panov, 33, a biologist from the Sukachev Institute of Forest, the research coordinator at this isolated but invaluable station.

'It was used to analyse carbon flows. Since then, the team built good relationships with locals, which is quite important, and sorted out the logistics. The original post allowed for interesting finds, such as how much carbon dioxide Siberian forests absorb: this had always been a massive gap in knowledge. Almost all global territories are very well studied, however, a couple of them still gave rise to questions: South America, Africa, and Northern Eurasia. These are so-called 'hot spot' areas. Even such a tiny post in taiga made a huge difference. It became a sort of milestone in creating a tower.

'The project leading to the tower was launched in 2003 through the International Science and Technology Centre (ISTC) in Moscow, mainly the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry and the Sukachev Institute of Forest. Construction was completed by 2006, but first atmospheric measurements began on the lower levels of the tower in October 2005.' 

This means that 2015 is the tenth anniversary of the initial readings on a project which will measure its success in decades rather than years. 

ZOTTO


ZOTTO


ZOTTO


ZOTTO


ZOTTO

'The height of the tower, 302 metres, was chosen because it covers border layer of the atmosphere, located 220-500 metres high, which is where the gases mix well.'

How did Dr Panov get to be posted here? 'I studied a fluorescence properties of phytoplankton at university. In my third year, we were told subjects for research work, and that a male student was wanted to go to the North to live in a log cabin and walk with a backpack. That was the day when I gave up my previous scientific topic. The following summer I was sent to the post to do my internship. When the post wasn't operational, I'd go there for research purposes. This led to an offer to join this new project. I started working as an operator back in 2006 and made it up to project manager.'

At the opening in 2006 measurement systems for carbon dioxide, methane, aerosols (particles, such as dust, in the atmosphere), and carbon monoxide were installed. A year later meteorological equipment was put in place. A decade on the tower is an unique example of scientific cooperation across modern political divides.

'A research group can come here to collect the data they need for their research and tie it to our's,' he explained. 'For example, a researcher studies liquids movement in trees and here he can see how it is related to other parameters, such as amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There are German scholars working at the tower. We have a very friendly atmosphere here, and there is no time for political disputes.

Karl Kuebler, senior engineer from the Max Planck Institute, has been coming here annually for the past 17 years. He also brought his wife here, and am trying to talk him into bringing their children, too.

Karl Kuebler


ZOTTO


ZOTTO

Karl Kuebler, senior engineer from the Max Planck Institute, has been coming here annually for the past 17 years.

'Apart from logistics and good relationships with locals, this territory is particularly representative for Middle Siberia. There are typical ecosystems here: light coniferous forests, regular coniferous forests, mixed forests and bogs. The place is also far from large industrial centres, so the impact of industry is very insignificant. We measure how much of carbon Siberian forests are able to absorb in a 'background conditions'.

'The height of the tower, 302 metres, was chosen because it covers a boundary layer of the atmosphere, located 200-500 metres high, alowing sampling of well-mixed air masses above the surface layer, and makes the measured mixing ratios representative of a much larger region compared with locally influenced air masses closer to the ground. 

'There are different methods for studying atmosphere-ecosystem interactions. The 'top-down' approach uses observations of the atmospheric composition at remote locations and only insignificantly influenced by local processes. 

'Together with models of large-scale atmospheric transport, sources and sinks of trace gases at Earth's surface are inferred. Conversely, the 'bottom-up' approach is based on local observations of fluxes or changes in ecosystems, which then to be extrapolated and scaled up in order to make inferences at continental scale. This 300-metre tower bridges  the gap in scale between the global integrative approaches and the local process studies.'

ZOTTO


ZOTTO


ZOTTO


ZOTTO

The hub of this research is a 'bunker' or laboratory at the foot of the structure. A covered gallery leads to the apartment building.

The Max Planck Institute is developing a network of towers all over the world. ZOTTO's twin, called ATTO - the Amazon Tall Tower Observatory, which is 325 metres tall, was opened in August in the Brazilian rainforest, monitoring the Amazon region which produces half the world's oxygen. Data from these observatories is seen as complementing each other, and will be mutual exchange in real time. 

'Here we have Northern Eurasia, there they have rainforest. There also are smaller posts across the globe. And an entire research team is running many of them. Siberia is one of those unique places where such research wasn't conducted earlier. We're not collecting data just for the sake of it, we're interested in long-term research, and we have at least 30 years ahead to detect tendencies that are beyond annual and decadal fluctuations. 

'Roughly speaking, we can detect some rise over a couple of years followed by a decline. That'd mean it might be a part of a cycle. Hence, we can be speaking about global tendencies related to the global climate system only in case of running long-term research. Over the past ten years, we can see concentration of carbon dioxide consistently growing by 1.6-1.8 ppm (part per million) a year. It's not very significant but it exists. Now we need to see if it continues, and if it does, to look at the reasons of such growth. 

'We can't yet be speaking about global warming because we haven't build up data for a massive amount of time. Something is changing, but it hasn't necessarily started recently. Climate change is like communicating vessels, it gets hotter in one place and colder in another, and these zones can have different impact on the situation. 

ZOTTO


ZOTTO

'To get more local data were erected three smaller posts nearby: two is in the forest, one is on a highland bog.'

'For example, an area where it got colder, may affect the climate more strongly than  where it got hotter. That's why we're trying to be very careful with conclusions.' From his vantage point at this Siberian station, he is cautious about blaming man too much for wrecking the world's climate.

'Human impact on climate is very arguable, in my opinion. I don't think that we actually can affect the global system that much. Perhaps, a build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and warming is a part of a bigger cycle of the Earth's development. However, the increase in concentration of carbon dioxide is very important. The current concentration at this site is around 385ppm, and it increases at about 1.5ppm a year. 

'Why is it very interesting? Because Siberian forests comprise ~ 10% of the global carbon stored in vegetation and soils, and contribute up to 10% of the global terrestrial net primary productivity. And around 65% of the Siberian forests are laid on permafrost.

ZOTTO


ZOTTO

'Scientists who come here also study tree growth, soil respiration and many other ecological processes.'

'Yet Siberian ecosystems are very sensitive to changes. Under warming conditions, the increased carbon storage due to a prolonged vegetation period will likely be counterbalanced by enhanced microbial activity that accelerates the release of carbon to the atmosphere via respiration. And as long as global changes are happening even here, it can be considered as an indicator of large-scale changes. The tower is not only a station for climate research. It's a stronghold for environmental research. ZOTTO provides us with general information for an area of around 1000 km2. But the area with a low surface influence on the performed measurements covers about 1,000,000 km2 of Central Siberia.

'We wanted to be able to get more local data, so for scaling up the tall tower measurements we erected three smaller masts nearby. Two of them are in the pine and dark forests, and the third one is on a peat bog. The short masts are equipped by the measurement systems for studying carbon exchange in particular ecosystems but for a limited territory, no larger than one hectare. And these contrast ecosystems were shown to be very different with carbon exchange processes.

Wildfire traces


Wildfire traces

Traces of the wildfires that raged in a few kilometres from the tower in 2012. 

'Scientists who come here also study tree growth, soil respiration and many other ecological processes. A massive amount of the research is monitoring the impact of wildfires on the atmosphere. I'd like to say that winds have a huge impact on our data. 

'As long as we have a mainly western wind drift here, we can even 'catch' wildfire signals in Central Russia. In 2012, we had the opportunity to observe the effects of a wildfire on the atmosphere right next to us, a few kilometres from the tower. Those were very strong wildfires, on the edge of being a regional catastrophe. We even considered evacuation. Eventually we were able to perform calculations of direct emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols from wildfires which are globally remain uncertain due to problems with emission factors, available carbon, and imprecise estimates of burned areas.

'But even more varied and sparse are accurate local calculations of temporal changes in boreal forest carbon dynamics following fire. Here we have established a wide system of permanent sampling sites in different ecosystems to start a long-range monitoring of the ecosystem development after fires of 2012'

He and his fellow scientists here are committed to a long haul. The tower and its gadgetry gives no quick fix understandings. 'There is a period of the building-up of data in science when there are no major breakthroughs, no practical applications for the data,' he said. 'But this monotonous routine research is necessary to understand what's happening to the planet.'

The hub of this research is a 'bunker' or laboratory at the foot of the structure. A covered gallery leads to the apartment building: it is protected because in winter chunks of ice can fly from the tower 'just like carpet bombing'.

Vladimir Kislitsin


ZOTTO


ZOTTO


ZOTTO


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ZOTTO

Mechanical engineer Vladimir Kislitsyn is always ready to feed the researchers wild game, cranberries, lingonberries and mushrooms. Malamute May meets Alexei Rubtsov, reserarcher at Sukachev Institute of Forest, as he comes from the forest with probes. The tower's team: Nikita Sidenko (operator), Aleksey Panov (project manager), Aleksandr Tsukanov (chief technician). 

While scientists are urged not to walk alone in the surrounding forest because of bears, there are also the temptations of cranberries, lingonberries and mushrooms to collect on this pristine territory. 

Mechanical engineer Vladimir Kislitsyn is also a hunter and feeds his German colleagues wild game, such as capercaillie. In summer, he dug a hole as a small swimming pool for researchers and others in residence at the tower. After filling it with water, he found it was full of snakes. To relax instead, the scientists have a banya - a steam sauna - ideal for the blistering cold in winter.

Among locals in the far flung spot, the tower initially caused some consternation with some blaming it for wildfires and radiation, or fearing it was a means of communicating with extraterrestrials.

The observatory is headed by a consortium of institutes. Three of them are German: the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry (Jena), the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry (Mainz), the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research (Leipzig); and several Russian, including Sukachev Institute of Forest (Krasnoyarsk), AM Obukhov Institute of Atmospheric Physics (Moscow), St Petersburg State University, and the Siberian Federal University, Krasnoyarsk. 

Comments (1)

Interesting and important research project . Thanks to Siberian Times to give us some findings from this"team" in the future.
Jocelyne, FRANCE
11/10/2015 22:16
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