07/09/2007 12:00 AM

The Breathing Taiga

Researchers Explore Siberia's Role in Climate Change


German researchers have constructed a massive tower deep in the Siberian wilderness where, under the watchful eyes of the Russian intelligence service, the scientists are measuring levels of environmental toxins and greenhouse gases. Their goal is to determine if the forests are helping to slow global warming or if they are heating up the planet even further.

From the top of the 300-meter steel tower, the surrounding countryside is a sea of green, stretching to the horizon in every direction. The uniform carpet of treetops is uninterrupted by roads or cities, with not even a single house in sight. The tower itself juts out of this vast carpet of green emptiness like a beacon. The red-and-white painted structure -- 120 tons of steel welded together, piece by piece -- is held in place by long wire cables.

Ernst-Detlef Schulze, 65, is panting by the time he sets foot on the triangular platform at the top. He takes a quick, vertigo-inducing look down at the ground, snaps his safety belt to a metal ring and complains about a pain he has been having in his right knee for the past few days.

But no orthopedist could stop Schulze from climbing up the tower's narrow ladder. The structure is the crowning achievement of his scientific career, and the culmination of 30 years of grueling work in a country where a Western academic like Schulze is viewed primarily as a potential spy.

"The tower is in fact something like a listening post," Schulze whispers conspiratorially into the wind. Indeed, it could more aptly be described as a sniffing tower for various gases: oxygen, carbon dioxide, aerosols, nitrous oxide, methane and carbon monoxide. "The instruments measure the breath of the taiga," says Schulze, referring to the moist, subarctic forest that begins where the tundra ends.

To christen the unusual measuring tower Schulze, an ecologist with the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in the eastern German city of Jena, brought an illustrious collection of directors of other Max Planck Institutes, young researchers and forestry experts to Siberia. The group spent one week trekking through the surrounding forests, swamps and steppes.

Victims, Perpetrators or Saviors?

The draw for the scientists was a question that Schulze has made it his life's mission to answer: What role do Eurasia's giant boreal regions, home to the largest contiguous stretch of forested land on earth, play in climate change? To this day, Siberia's enormous primeval forests remain one of the greatest mysteries in greenhouse research. "They could be victims, perpetrators or saviors," says Schulze.

The vegetation could suffer under rising temperatures, making the forests victims. They could be perpetrators because the soil in the region, which is 27 times the size of Germany, has the potential to emit massive quantities of greenhouse gases in the future and they could be saviors because the trees and bushes store large amounts of the gas emitted in the burning of fossil fuels in their branches, needles and trunks. "We hope to be able to answer this question with the help of this tower," says Schulze.

Map: Siberia's Taiga

Map: Siberia's Taiga

The plane carrying the group of German academics lands in Krasnoyarsk, the booming capital of the central Siberian region, on a Monday in late June. They board a bus that will take them north to Yeniseisk, passing through acrid clouds of smoke emitted by one of the world's largest aluminum processing plants. Yeniseisk, a small city on the banks of the mile-wide Yenisei River, offers a sense of the change that is currently taking place in Siberia.

New, modern factories have sprouted from the ruins of Soviet-era sawmills. Within the space of a few hours, lumber that has been brought to the factories on floats is sawn, shrink-wrapped in plastic and loaded onto the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The saws are never idle, especially now that emerging economies like China have become prime customers for wood as building material.

The researchers continue their journey on an almost-vintage Aeroflot helicopter, which drops them off in a small clearing in the forest deep in the wilderness east of the Yenisei. Schulze breathes deeply, savoring the tangy aroma of young pine trees. When he folds back the rim of his brown hat and points the way with his ski pole, he becomes a Goretex-wearing dead ringer for a young Alexander von Humboldt, the famous German naturalist and explorer. The group follows him into the undergrowth.

'Everything Is Full of Carbon'

Schulze is accompanied by his wife Inge, who helps look after the members of the expedition. She feeds her husband, who is a bit of an absent-minded professor, important figures. She also makes sure that he applies enough insect repellent to ward off the aggressive swarms of mosquitoes descending on the newcomers.

"Carbon! Everything you see here is full of carbon," Schulze shouts, poking his stick into the moist, black humus. The water in the region's streams, he tells the group, is also black. "The ground is so saturated with carbon that the rain flushes it out," Schulze, a native of Berlin, explains.

Ten percent of all carbon stored on the planet's land mass is in Siberia. The expedition members march across this fragile treasure, the ground springy underfoot. The group of soil experts, atmospheric physicists and climate modelers knows all too well that if the carbon at their feet oxidizes it will rise into the air as carbon dioxide and heat up the planet.

But at the moment precisely the opposite is taking place, says Schulze. "This forest is something like Europe's green lungs," he tells the visitors. According to rough estimates, only about half of the carbon dioxide produced by human activity accumulates in the atmosphere. The biosphere and oceans absorb the other half. In other words, a large share of the carbon coming from European smokestacks and car exhausts ends up in the trunks of Siberian coniferous trees.

Just how much carbon dioxide do Siberia's forests filter out of the atmosphere? "On that note," he responds, revealing his quirky Berlin sense of humor, "we're about as clueless as a hedgehog in a handkerchief." He laughs heartily at his own joke, and the sound echoes from the surrounding trees.

Schulze and his team have spent 30 years doing research in these forests, documenting the constant cycle of death and rejuvenation that characterizes this landscape. "There was a fire here a while ago," says Schulze, as the group comes to a stop in a birch grove.

Man-Made Fires and Deforestation

These local fires, usually ignited by lightning, offer nature an opportunity to rejuvenate. "The birch is a pioneering tree. It takes advantage of the light in the newly created gap in the forest." But the trees have little chance of long-term survival against the conifers, which gradually win the struggle for sunlight, as birds and the wind quickly disperse their seeds. New conifers begin to sprout shortly after a forest fire. First comes the fir tree, followed by the Siberian Pine and finally the spruce. "The entire process takes a few hundred years," says Schulze. Until the next fire occurs, nature has enough time to perform its own choreography of life -- if only man didn't get in the way.

What Schulze is talking about becomes clear later in the afternoon. The helicopter has returned and picked up the team from its hike in the wilderness, and now it rattles off to the West, back across the Yenisei. The red and white tower soon appears on the horizon. The helicopter's shadow glides across a large, puddle-like expanse of marshland, and suddenly a gray surface appears, blackening tree trunks protruding from it.

Graphic: The Land-Based Circulation of Carbon

Graphic: The Land-Based Circulation of Carbon

Using satellite images, the Max Planck researchers have calculated that 87 percent of all forest fires in the region are caused by human activity. The charred area the helicopter is now crossing is likely part of it. "Look," Schulze shouts over the din of the rotors, "the fire site runs along that small logging road down there."

When Schulze began his research in the Yenisei region two decades ago, loggers had only penetrated into the forest by about 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of the river. "Now it's 350 kilometers (218 miles)," he says.

The next morning the group of visitors is given a tour of the scope of the damage on the ground. The researchers crouch on the bed of an ancient Soviet-built truck. Schulze stands in front, his face turned toward the cab. "Fire and loggers form an unholy alliance," he says. The Russian practice is to completely "harvest" an area covering many square kilometers. Using large tracked vehicles, they plow across the frozen ground in the winter. "If a fire devastates the young tree plants in the summer, the field threatens to turn into grassland."

A trained ecologist, Schulze studied the phenomenon of dying forests in the 1980s. He later purchased a section of forest in the eastern German state of Thuringia so that he could manage the area while applying strict sustainable criteria. He won the German Environmental Award last year.

Schulze is worried that Siberia's green lungs could soon lose their effectiveness. He talks himself into a rage standing on the bumpy truck bed, ranting, not over Russian loggers, but Western climate diplomats. The Kyoto Protocol, he says, in which the world community agreed to measures to combat the greenhouse effect, lacks protections for the world's large primeval forests. According to Schulze, the United Nations Climate Authority doesn't even monitor 40 percent of Russian forests. "The Russians can do as they please with them," says Schulze, clearly outraged by the idea.

If the forests were cut down for lumber, this would not affect Russia's carbon dioxide balance, at least not officially. "But it would be more detrimental to the climate than the emissions from hundreds of coal-fired power plants," says Schulze. In addition to releasing the carbon dioxide stored in the trees, logging, by destroying the forests, would eliminate their value as a collector of greenhouse gases.

In this sense, the thin steel tower that the Max Planck Institute built in this endangered carbon paradise in collaboration with the Krasnoyarsk Forestry Institute is also a watchtower of sorts, documenting in painstaking detail the gradual demise of Siberia's forests.

Schulze and fellow researcher Martin Heimann, a director at the Max Planck Institute in Jena, have now climbed the tower together. "At an altitude of 300 meters we are able to capture air masses that have traveled several hundred kilometers," Heimann explains. As an atmospheric physicist, Heimann is responsible for measuring operations and points to the many pipes secured to the tower at various levels. They suck in the air at a uniform rate to ensure the accuracy of test results.

Sophisticated meteorological instruments measure the direction of the wind as it blows across the taiga. "This allows us to determine quite precisely where the gases we measure are coming from," says Heimann. The equipment is so sensitive that it can detect winds originating as far away as the Arctic Ocean, the Mongolian steppes, the Ural Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

Run-Ins with the Russian Intelligence Service

As intriguing as it is for researchers, this sort of precision also arouses the suspicions of Russia's powerful intelligence service, the FSB, which repeatedly held up construction of the multi-million euro project. This is because the equipment allows the researchers to do more than determine whether the carbon monoxide they measure comes from industrial smokestacks or automobile tailpipes. In theory they could use the information gleaned about certain trace elements to analyze the details of production processes, which is precisely what the FSB wants to prohibit. Why? Because Siberia's dense forests are still home to secret cities where Russia, a nuclear power, is busy outfitting its arsenal of missiles.

By now a helicopter has arrived carrying the Russian guests of honor, including Yevgeny Vaganov, the dean of the University of Krasnoyarsk and a partner of Schulz's for years. To celebrate the occasion, assistants in the dwelling at the base of the tower have prepared a sturgeon with a crown carved from radishes.

Nevertheless, the mood is muted. There has been friction over a Russian employee who was slated to monitor the complex equipment and was sent to Jena for expensive training. The man was apparently dismissed without notice, allegedly at the behest of the FSB.

Schulze remains calm. His experiences with Russia and its people have taught him patience. This is also evident in his speech, in which he describes how he began his research in the Russian forests 30 years ago.

He shows slides depicting his expedition team sitting on aluminum crates in front of the train station in Leningrad. His wife Inge and the couple's children are also part of the group, which traveled through the tundra by bus. "The intelligence agency didn't want to let us get off the bus," says Schulze. "That's why, whenever there was something interesting to see, we would stick our fingers in our throats to force the bus to stop."

Schulze calls his presentation "Journey to Happiness." He relates the story behind the title. The group was kept waiting for six hours before being allowed to enter the Soviet Union. "After that you're just so happy to be let in," says Schulze, and Vaganov, the powerful dean from Krasnoyarsk, laughs along with him. He raises his glass of vodka and calls out: "To friendship!"

The day wears on and the vodka flows freely, until Schulze finally says his goodbyes, packs up his tent and shoulders his backpack. Before the day ends, the helicopter will take the group back to civilization.

The sun is already low on the horizon as Schulze, his wife and the other researchers take off. As Schulze says, there are still so many mysteries to solve in this giant region. There is the permafrost soil, which emits more and more methane and carbon dioxide the warmer it gets. But then there are the swamps, which consume more carbon dioxide as the growing season becomes longer. The tower will help Schulze and his fellow researchers gain a better understanding of all of these factors.

Schulze will retire soon. His wife says that this has made him a bit melancholy. The title of his presentation, Journey to Happiness, is no irony for the Schulzes.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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