Russia: Global Warming to Cause Droughts, Floods

February 19, 2009

Russia will likely see more forest fires, droughts and floods in the coming century due to global warming, and policy makers need to prepare for large-scale change, scientists warned in a report released Wednesday.

It also said Russia, famous for its brutal winters, will benefit from climate change in some ways, with warmer temperatures and less snow and ice.

Growing evidence that global warming is shrinking polar ice, opening up new shipping lanes, already is generating competition between Russia and other nations over the Arctic’s natural resources.

But the study published Wednesday by the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring is Russia’s first comprehensive effort at documenting climate change in the world’s largest country — and one of the coldest.

“Naturally, (Russia) has a lot of climatic distinctions and we wanted to know how climate change and global warming affects different parts of Russia, to know what exactly is going on,” said Alexander Bedritsky, who heads the meteorology service.

Over the past 100 years, air temperatures in Russia warmed by around 2.33 degrees F (1.29 degrees C), compared with1.3 F (0.74 degrees C) globally, the report said.

In the second half of the 20th century, winter snow cover decreased in Siberia and the Far Eastern region of Chukotka. The volume of water flowing through major Siberian rivers increased, the report found.

Soil temperatures in parts of western Siberia long known for permafrost have climbed by 1.8 F (1 C) in the final 25 years of the last century. And Arctic ice cover has decreased steadily in the past two decades.

Some governments have said that Russia, and possibly Canada, stand to gain the most from global warming, as permafrost melts, forests migrate northward and more land becomes arable.

Sergei Semyonov, of the Institute for Studies of Global Warming and the Environment, said warmer temperatures have definitely benefited Russian agriculture. But he also warned of new species of crop-destroying pests such as locusts moving northward.

Bedritsky said warmer temperatures also will mean a shorter season for Russia’s notoriously inefficient municipal heating systems — saving energy and money.

But the report said policy makers should begin planning for changes from warming temperatures, such as the likelihood that increased flooding in the Caspian Sea basin will swamp towns and villages, or that farmers will need substantially more irrigation in increasingly arid regions.

Scientist Vladimir Kutsov said it’s impossible to say unambiguously that Russia will benefit in the near future.

“Not everything can be measured with money,” he said. “Like, say, polar bears. You can’t measure the loss of polar bears compared with the possible expansion of the Arctic shelf. It’s a very complex question.”

The receding Arctic ice cover has been watched with particular attention by Russia, which fears competition for the vast region’s resources of oil, gas and minerals from nations such as Canada, the United States, Norway and Denmark.

The Kremlin’s top envoy for Arctic issues, Artur Chilingarov, last week announced that Russia would modernize its icebreaker fleet and station more researchers in the region as part of its push to stake claim to Arctic resources.

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