“Yes, the climate always changed. But never so fast”

Biogeographer Boris Solovyov about +21° in Antarctica, the irrelevance of previous maps, the future of the Arctic and the coronavirus

“Yes, the climate always changed. But never so fast”
Photo: from the personal archive of Boris Solovyov

“The average temperature on the planet is really growing, but it is expressed differently in different regions. And there is such a successful image that the climate is becoming not warmer — it is becoming more nervous. This means that the weather is becoming less predictable. Winter in the European part of Russia this year has been unusually warm, but this does not change the fact that the next winter may be cold. The entire climate system will go out of balance. What has previously been established and normal is beginning to behave unpredictably. This is a danger for both nature and people," says Boris Solovyov, the biogeographer and chief coordinator of projects on marine protected areas of WWF Russia. In the interview with Realnoe Vremya, he spoke about how the Russian Arctic is developing, what global climate change threatens humanity and what causes the coronavirus epidemic.

“During the polar autumn, almost all the time it is either sunrise or sunset. You see both the sky and the ice as red, orange, and yellow”

Could you tell us about the most interesting expeditions and research?

I had the most amazing expedition in 2010. I had already worked for more than two months in the Far East by then. And I was told that there was still work on the Northern Sea route for three weeks on Mikhail Somov vessel. This is a hydrometeorological vessel that supplies polar stations along the entire North Sea route. Our task was to make observations from the ship and from the helicopter and talk to polar explorers, find out what animals they see and when they see them.

When I came aboard, it turned out that we were going for three months instead of three weeks. We left Arkhangelsk, reached Wrangel Island, and returned. There was no Internet, and there was a phone that you could call once or twice a week. There was an e-reader, and I read about 40 books in those 90 days. It was a unique opportunity to see not just the entire Russian Arctic, but also to see it in dynamics because we it was autumn: the ocean was frozen before our eyes. There were episodes when we were stuck for three days, waiting for an icebreaker to pull us out. At the same time, I saw that the Arctic is not a black-and-white world, but a very colourful one. Because during the polar autumn, almost all the time it is either sunrise or sunset. You see both the sky and the ice as red, orange, and yellow. Also during these months, I had the opportunity to talk to special people — polar explorers who live in isolation and see one or two vessels a year.

This expedition was also important from a scientific point of view because in Russia in the 1990s and 2000s there was almost no scientific work in the Arctic and, at that time, there was almost no fresh data on the distribution of marine mammals.

Why wasn't this work conducted?

For a long time after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no money or interest in this region. In the late 2000s, Russia began to return to the Arctic in every sense of the word.

“In the White sea, Beluga whales are found to have pesticides that were once used in Southeast Asia”

What environmental problems do you think people should pay attention to first?

I guess that's two things. First, we consume too much and irresponsibly. In order to continue to consume as much as we are currently consuming, we need more and more territories: land for agriculture, infrastructure. This leads to the destruction of the natural environment. This is the most evident problem. Which then leads to a reduction in the number of animals, their death, destruction of entire ecosystems, and pollution of the seas.

Unfortunately, this problem has already become global and does not manifest itself in the most obvious way. I'll give an example. Beluga whales in the White Sea were taken a sample of fat (usually pollutants in mammals accumulate in adipose tissue) and they found chemicals in it that turned out to be pesticides that were once used in China, Vietnam, and Southeast Asia to control termites. Although China and Vietnam are far from the White Sea and belugas do not leave this sea, they carry traces of human activity. The Arctic is indeed a remote region, but the destruction of the natural environment there is also happening.

Second, of course, climate change, which has recently been discussed everywhere. The scientific community has been talking about this for a long time, but many (in particular, in Russia) continue to think that nothing terrible is happening and all this is the invention of some dark forces.

Yes, the climate has always changed, but it has never changed as quickly as it is now, when it is happening literally before our eyes.

We see, for example, how maps have become irrelevant: sometimes we come on a ship to some fjords and, according to the map, we are already on a glacier, but in reality, there is no glacier, and we are standing in a deep bay — the glacier has retreated, melted over the past few years. Or heat waves, which have become particularly frequent and intense in recent years: in Antarctica this year, the temperature has risen to 21 degrees (with the norm in those places in 0 — +5 degrees). Naturally, the animals that live there are not adapted to such conditions, this is a problem for them.

“The climate is not getting warmer, it's getting more nervous”

There are many myths and fears around the topic of global warming. Could you share the latest data from scientists on this subject?

Although I am not a climatologist, working in the polar regions, I can not avoid this topic. The climate in the Arctic is changing twice as fast as on the planet as a whole. By the way, we don't like to talk about global warming, we are talking about global climate change. Because somewhere changes can be expressed in cooling, somewhere — in greater instability.

Despite the fact that the average temperature on the planet is actually rising, this is expressed differently in different regions. And there is such a successful image that the climate is becoming not warmer — it is becoming more nervous. This means that the weather is becoming less predictable.

Winter in the European part of Russia this year has been unusually warm, but this does not change the fact that the next winter may be cold. The entire climate system will go out of balance. What has previously been established and normal is beginning to behave unpredictably. And this is a danger for both nature and people. If in the Arctic, for example, heat waves used to happen once every 30 years, now they will happen once every 5-10 years.

This means that you need to adapt — take this into account when building, for example. This is a process that cannot be ignored.

What other consequences can this climate change lead to?

For the poorest tropical island states, this will mean the loss of territories, flooding of coastal areas as a result of rising ocean levels. For example, the islands such as the Maldives and Polynesia will suffer. According to forecasts, the territories where several million people now live will become unsuitable for agriculture and habitation by the middle of the century.

It is another thing is that these changes will affect the developed and rich countries of the world to a lesser extent, and the poor and densely populated countries will suffer more. In Russia, they sometimes say that our country is northern and that we will only benefit — we will grow bananas.... Not exactly. In the south of the country, where we now have everything grown, it will become drier and hotter, and the climate will become less suitable for agriculture. Diseases, such as malaria, will also spread from the south to the north.

In the Arctic, everything will be less predictable. We will have to invest more money in infrastructure construction. There is a lot of talk about the development of the Northern Sea Route, since there will be less or no ice in the Arctic seas. But many do not take into account the fact that with the departure of ice in these seas strong storms will come. At the same time, the Siberian seas are small, and the wave in them will be very unpleasant. So, perhaps, the Northern Sea Route will not become much more suitable for navigation. Again, all these changes are complex, and we need to study them and adapt to them.

How long will it take?

The middle of this century, the second half of the century. It's not that far away.

“A significant part of the Arctic is occupied by licensed areas where hydrocarbon exploration is being conducted or will be conducted”

Could you tell us about your project to identify priority areas for protection in the Russian Arctic Seas? Why is this necessary?

The Arctic is changing rapidly and strongly in every sense of the word. Special attention is being paid to the Arctic, including by politicians and economists, including in Russia. Our country has plans to load the Northern Sea Route with 80 million tonnes of cargo by 2024. Despite the fact that less than 1 million tonnes of transit cargo were transported in 2011. A significant part of the Arctic is already occupied by licensed areas where exploration and, possibly, subsequent production of hydrocarbons is being carried out or will be carried out. There will be more fishing here.

In other words, over time, the Arctic, which we now know as remote, little-touched and wild, will change. In these circumstances, it is very important to try to make sure that human economic activity in the Arctic occurs in the least destructive way, in order to preserve the ecosystems and biodiversity of this region as much as possible.

The most effective tool in the world practice for this purpose is the creation of networks of marine protected areas.

This means that some areas in the Arctic are designated as particularly valuable or particularly vulnerable, and certain economic activities are regulated or prohibited in them. The forms of regulation can be very different depending on the area. In some cases, this can be a strict protection from any human impact, that is, reserves — for the most valuable and vulnerable areas. In some cases, it is possible to carry cargo through such an area, but you can not drill and extract oil — then these are reserves.

Our task was to look at the Arctic as a whole and understand what is most valuable and vulnerable from a biological point of view. This project was initiated by WWF Russia in 2014 and has been attended by about 30 experts from the country's leading scientific institutions. The analysis was carried out by employees of scientific institutes of the Academy of Sciences, universities, including, by the way, from Kazan: from oceanologists to specialists in sea ice, fish, birds, marine mammals; mathematicians, programmers, geographers. As a result, based on the analysis of a large data set, a network of 47 key Arctic regions has been identified. Where we hope that protected areas will be created.

And it should be noted that Russia is the first of the Arctic countries for whose seas such work has been done. Now, looking at the experience of Russia, Canada and other countries are doing something similar. Our country has every chance to be a leader in the protection of marine ecosystems in the Arctic. Importantly, this network of districts has been highlighted not just on paper. Protected areas are already being created based on the results of the analysis. In particular, the federal reserve Novosibirsk Islands has been created. The work is ongoing on the harmonization of reserve on the Medvezhyi Islands, Laptevomorskiy zakaznik in Yakutia.

What can you tell us about the causes of the coronavirus?

It is believed that COVID-19 appeared in the “wet markets” of Wuhan in China. These are markets where live animals are sold from all over the world, which are immediately butchered, eaten, and cooked. It is assumed that the virus mutated and migrated to humans from a bat or from a small pangolin animal living in the rainforest.

But this disease is also the result of what we've discussed earlier — the destruction of the natural environment, the invasion of man into the habitat of animals. The rational use of natural resources and the desire for harmony with nature will help to avoid such cases. We live in interesting times, the world has become especially small and vulnerable — let's take care of it and each other.

By Natalia Antropova. Photo from the personal archive of Boris Solovyov