Ausgabe 28/2007

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.

  • Part 1: Researchers Explore Siberia's Role in Climate Change
  • Part 2

© DER SPIEGEL 28/2007
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