Black Carbon in Arctic Russia

December 9, 2009

{Cross-posted at the Center for American Progress’s Wonk Room.}

Of the many interesting venues offering side events, I’ve been most impressed by some of the events put on by the Bellona Foundation. You can actually stream and watch some of these events here. It’s a noisy little spot, so be warned. I’ll just give you a taste here of what a side event is like. Here’s video from the event on black carbon.

The upshot of the event is that polar and alpine regions are warming rapidly, so watching what’s going on in Russia is important. Moreover, since the arctic makes up one of the largest regions in Russia, watching black carbon is not just extremely important, it’s extremely important to Russia.

Pam Pear of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative and Elena Kobets from the Bellona Foundation noted that rapid reduction in CO2 emissions is vital to slowing arctic warming, but that simply reducing CO2 is not enough. It is prudent also to pay attention to the role of land use. In this case, black carbon (or soot, basically) plays an warming role as well, since when the black carbon lays over white snow, the carbon absorbs more light and thereby exacerbates the melting.

What then causes carbon on the snow? It results from a variety of activities, but mostly from agricultural burning and from forest fires, even though transportation, power, and industry also create this soot effect. Notably, of the forest fires creating black soot, approximately 97% begin from reckless agricultural burning. To make matters worse, underground peat fires caused by above-ground agricultural fires add to the black soot effect by emitting more greenhouse gases. (Click through the slideshow at the video stream to see graphs of this effect.)

So what we’re really talking about here is “agricultural burning,” which is a common farming practice in Russia. Indeed, the demographic data illustrates that a heavy portion of black carbon emissions can be attributed to agricultural burning in Russia itself. A smaller number of agricultural fires are started in the US and Canada, though some burning does happen in North America as well.

The team presented several proposals to help remedy this problem. One proposal is to encourage the passage of a domestic Russian law prohibiting, restricting, or at least monitoring agricultural burning. To date, there is no such law. The international community can help by applying pressure.

Secondly, the academic community could become involved in identifying the problem and devising solutions. This could occur at the scientific level, in identifying sources and causes of the problem; but it could also occur at the cultural or sociological level, since agricultural burning is partly an unjustified cultural practice.

Finally, it would help to export agricultural savvy and technology to those agricultural regions of Russia where such burning is taking place. It is a widely held view, apparently, that agricultural burning melts the permafrost and the loosens the soil, thereby making planting easier; but this can be shown in other arctic agricultural environments to be false. Knowledge sharing and capacity building could go a long way.


  1. Ben,

    Agricultural burning is on a large scale in Russia. Trying to outlaw such a practice is much the same as the US government in the 1800’s prohibiting the native americans from practicing their religion and language. I can’t imagine you wouldn’t be advocating a similar practice. Burning the weeds and dead plant material does return nutrients to the soil, and yes it does release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as well as carbon particulates.

    The burning practice also releases heat into the atmosphere as well, so the warming that is seen is likely a result of the widespread fires. This has been happening for hundreds of years and should be considered a normal part of the ecology. Consider also that if the burning did not take place, it could possibly cool the area to the extent people and livestock would die from the cold. The unintended consequences could be worse than the perceived problem.

  2. When Australia banned burning for several decades, after millenia of burning by Aboriginees, the results were worse and more dangerous fires.
    In the US, the efforts to stop all forest fires has resulted in over grown forests in poor health.
    I think if we would put efforts into reducing soot from coal fired plants and diesel fuel, we could reduce ice melt world wide, besides improve health.
    Since no treaties or laws on the table will serve to reduce CO2 ppm in any significant way, perhaps we should focus on strategies that can actually help?
    Soot reduction is a good place to start.

  3. Since when is knowledge sharing about ineffective and destructive farming practices analogous to genocide and religious oppression? That’s pretty belittling to the people who died in the American genocides.

    If Russian farmers truly believe that burning their fields loosens up the permafrost, and research shows them to be empirically wrong and further research shows that they are contributing substantially to GW, then there is nothing oppressive with encouraging different practices. In fact, I would argue it would be morally obligatory to encourage different practices.

    If other research shows that less wildfires are bad for the forest, then that is another matter. We should acknowledge that not every forest ecology is a fire ecology. Some forests do not naturally burn on a regular basis. I don’t know that much about Siberia, but I doubt widespread agriculture with agricultural burning is an ancient practice there. I have heard that lightning strike fires can cause huge conflagrations there, and it is so sparsely populated there is no attempt to put them out.

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