[b]Fifty years ago, it was rare for Belarus to experience warm winters, abnormal summer heat, sand storms, heavy showers or whirlwinds. Now, they seem to appear with stubborn regularity, to the detriment of the economy and puzzling scientists. What causes such weather patterns and how is the climate changing? Can we insure ourselves against weather ‘surprises’?[/b]
Scientists have been speaking about global warming for several years, with no shared viewpoints yet reached. According to Vladimir Loginov, a leading climatologist and an academician at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) of Belarus, greenhouse gases are not solely to blame. There was a time when the volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere remained steady, yet temperatures continued to rise: from 1917 to 1940. The world burnt far less fossil fuels then compared to even the 1960-1970s, so it appears that our climate experiences regular cycles.
Warming — unrivalled in duration and intensity — began in 1988, with a sharp temperature rise in January 1989. This January and February, temperatures rose above the climatic norm by 7 degrees; in March and April, they were up 3-5 percent. Temperatures continued to rise dramatically until 1998, when the process slowed. According to Mr. Loginov, over the past 15 years, the temperature has changed little, while remaining high. In total, the average annual temperature of the past two decades in Belarus has risen 1.1 degrees overall, with most months, except November, becoming warmer. This is especially noticeable in winter, as our climate has become less continental.
Fields changing their face
Changes in the weather do leave their trace, with agro-climatic zones across Belarus shifting by around 100-150km. The northern zone has almost disappeared, while the south now has a climate like Ukrainian Polesie, with a short, mild winter (and the country’s warmest and longest vegetation period). Employees at Pripyatsky National Park have observed a spread of flora and fauna species untraditional for this location — usually seen on prairies. For example, clove is now growing in Lelchitsy District’s sand dunes.
Apricots and melons, once grown successfully only by our neighbours, are now thriving in Gomel and Brest regions. Maize, soya and sunflowers are also giving a good harvest, inspiring agrarians to adapt their planting plans. However, while warmth is good for some crops, it’s bad for potatoes, cabbage and flax. Those sensitive to sunshine need to be ‘moved’ to northern areas, while southern fields can grow maize, millet and sunflowers, which are heat-loving and drought-resistant.
The Scientific and Practical Centre for Arable Farming (NAS) is preparing a range of recommendations to suit our new climate conditions. This year, according to Vasily Pavlovsky, Belarus’ Deputy Food and Agriculture Minister, Gomel Region is growing several times more sunflower and soya crops.
Of course, the negative side of climate change is reduced rainfall, which brings drought. Other extreme phenomena (heavy showers, hurricanes, flooding and whirlwinds) are becoming more frequent, damaging the economy and costing money to deal with. Sadly, such weather conditions are predicted to become more common, with even greater losses expected.
Several years ago, the World Bank calculated that, annually, the Belarusian economy loses an average of up to $90m from damage brought by natural cataclysms. We are working on minimising the effect of such disasters, with a national programme mitigating the consequences of climate change, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting the economy.
Deeper into the wood…
Forests, which cover a considerable part of Belarus, are also sensitive towards climate change. After the terrible droughts of 1992, 1994 and other years, pests have grown in number, leading to timber destruction. Over the last twenty years, there have been several ‘waves’ of droughts (previously unusual for Belarus), with fir, oak, ash and birch trees most affected, as is particularly evident in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha — a Belarusian natural pearl.
V.F. Kuprevich Institute of Experimental Botany (NAS) has developed a strategy to adapt forestry towards climate change, running until 2050. The major focus is improvement of the structure of woods. A desirable ‘set of trees’ has been designated for each forestry: oak trees in Vitebsk Region, for example, and pine trees in Polesie.
The risk of forest fires is also rising, with peatland fires considered to be the most dangerous. Repeated water logging of reclaimed forest marshes is being used to deter such disaster, with 28,000 hectares already made damp across 12 forestries.
What lies ahead?
According to the World Meteo-rological Organisation, annual losses from unfavourable weather conditions are costing dozens of billions of US dollars. To reduce the risk to the world community, we are reducing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. In 1992, a Framework Convention on Climate Change was developed in Rio de Janeiro, later followed by the Kyoto Protocol.
However, Mr. Loginov believes that we should hardly expect results, since greenhouse gas emissions are actually rising at an even greater speed than before the signing of the Kyoto Protocol. In the 1990s, these were increasing by approximately 1 percent per year: now this is more than 2 percent annually. Eco-production is expensive, while far less electricity is produced from renewable energy sources than from burning coal or oil.
India and China have predicted that they will more than double their use of coal (the dirtiest fuel) in their power engineering by 2030 — compared with 2005. Without power, their economic growth won’t be possible. Moreover, these developed states have reached economic heights while being little concerned about ecological consequences. Occasionally, some states either leave the Kyoto Protocol (Canada) or stipulate the signing of a new document with definite conditions (such as Japan, China, India and Russia).
Unfortunately, nobody can predict the exact results of climate change. If this were possible, it would help us plan a strategy for the world community. Long-term forecasts are thought to be no more than 70 percent accurate, but temperatures may rise 3-4 degrees by the end of the century, giving Belarus a climate like that of Ukraine. However, a few powerful volcanic eruptions would level out warming, perhaps leading to a fall in temperature.
By Lilia Khlystun