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"Ahead of global science." How Siberian scientists resolve global warming mystery

At least once every 100 years, in the Tomsk Region's outback the Ob river overflows so much that the water spreads for dozens of kilometers, giving birth to unique processes in the earth and water that affect global climate change and warming in the Arctic

MOSCOW, June 25. /TASS Correspondent Anna Glushenkova/. A unique ecosystem exists in the Tomsk Region's outback - in the Ob River's floodplain near the Kaibasovo research station. At least once every 100 years, the river there overflows so much that the water spreads for dozens of kilometers, giving birth to unique processes in the earth and water that affect global climate change and warming in the Arctic. Those processes attract scientists from all over the world. They come to the world-class station and to the Kaibasovo carbon polygon, located there.

How to pass a difficult quest

The picturesque place, named Kaibasovo, is located in the very outback of the Tomsk Region - in the Ob River's floodplain. Getting there from Tomsk is quite an quest. First, you need to drive along a highway, then for about 20 km - along a crushed-stone road, and the last section of 7 km - by a swamp off-road vehicle through floodplain lands.

There used to be a village with the same name. It had 20 houses. Nowadays, there are only remains of wooden houses and dilapidated stoves across the field.

This location is place for the Tomsk State University's research station. There, scientists conduct world-class research related to global warming and carbon emissions.

"The Invisible Feat"

"It all has emerged not from big sciences, but rather from friendship, where people were ready to help each other and to do research at their own expense," a leading Russian researcher of the Arctic, the Tomsk University's scientist Sergey Kirpotin said. "There, at Kaibasovo, our colleague Viktor Drozdov had a house, and over first years we used it as a base and as an overnight accommodation. The house did not have regular beds - something like bunks. The advantage - they could accommodate eight people at a time. So everything started from that little house, and with time it was gaining infrastructures."

Direct Arctic studies also has emerged from friendship. Kirpotin met Terry Callaghan, a British experimental scientist, the winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He invited the young scientist from Tomsk to the Abisko Scientific Research Station in Sweden. Back then, Terry Callaghan was the station's director. Later on, he visited Tomsk. That was the beginning of first projects, which over time progressed to receiving grants, like, for example, from the Russian Science Foundation.

"Further on, politics got in the way, the projects were closed, and all our work, as they say, went down the drain. That was not just tension, it was a pause that lasted from the early 2000s until about 2010. Back then, I thought I'd rather invited Terry once again - we still kept very good relations. He did arrive, got a passion for Tomsk, and this is how appeared a Siberian network to study environmental changes, which he had initiated. Kaibasovo was integrated into this network and the mega-profile that we had created," the scientist said.

Later on, another famous scientist, Oleg Pokrovsky, got interested in the projects. Presently, he works at the Midi-Pyrenees Observatory (Toulouse, France), leading the Tomsk University's Laboratory of Bio-geo-chemical and Remote Environmental Monitoring Methods. In 2023, he was among Russia's top 5 best specialists in the Earth sciences.

Thanks to his support, the project to study the Ob River, including at the Kaibasovo station, in 2014 won a mega grant from the Russian government and reached the international level.

Nowadays, scientists enjoy accommodation, lab facilities and even a conference room - they are located in specially equipped trailers. The station participates in the Priority federal project and is part of the carbon polygon.

"The history of research is practically invisible feat where people work fueled by their enthusiasm or with very little financial support. And only later on it builds up, then schools, infrastructures, a world-class laboratory are created - we've passed all these stages. And - most importantly - we have developed a unique team of professors and young scientists, graduate students. Young scientists are actively involved in real projects; they come from different parts of the country," Kirpotin said.

Small parts of big science

They come not only from Russia. According to Sergey Vorobyov, director of the Megaprofil Collective Use Center, to which this station belongs, scientists from the US, China, Japan, Sweden, France, New Zealand, Singapore, and African countries have used to come to Kaibasovo. Scientists shared experience and at times cooperated for joint projects. Over the recent year, almost all the projects have collapsed, but the scientists do continue to come now - the relations have remained good.

Local residents from neighboring towns and villages actively participate in the research. Scientists always try to make friends with them in the very beginning, since who if not them do care for their land.

"Whenever on expeditions we come to new places, we always get acquainted with the administration, with the locals, and we talk to school students. Imagine: scientists come to a village school! And, moreover, give simple tasks, for example, to collect something, we explain to them why it is important, and leave to them various devices and sensors. Even if they are doing simple things, they anyway contribute to the global research, they assist sciences," the University's Chief Scientific Secretary for Scientific and Innovative Activities Lyudmila Borilo said.

There, at Kaibasovo, scientists have managed to create a very friendly and gentle atmosphere. Half way to the station, to where we went with the scientists, the locals were meeting us, and, as soon as we got there, they invited us to the table. According to Borilo, in summer, when scientists can stay at the station for several months, the locals often bring vegetables, eggs, milk and meat from their farms, and in winter they look after the station.

"We don't ask them about it, but we always welcome them, invite them to our meetings. We are very friendly with them. We always try to give them a chance to earn extra money - we employ them as guards, laboratory assistants and even guides. Every station is specific, and it's important to get along with everyone, otherwise you just leave - and they will immediately burn down the entire station," she laughed.

"Lyudmila Pavlovna" (first and middle names) is exactly the way everyone calls her here, a little breathlessly and lovingly. And this, in addition to nature and silence, gives additional peace to the place. Scientists often come there to write articles or to think something over, to systematize research results - it is just a perfect place. This is what Pokrovsky has been doing here from time to time, scientists say.

Some scientists may stay at the station for up to six months - nowadays, there are a few small wooden log houses, next to each other. They are called the "bird street" - because scientists with "bird" last names live there - Blackbird, Sparrow, Magpie.

The Second Amazon

The Ob River's floodplain, where the station is located, is interesting to scientists because it is very pronounced. "The Second Amazon" is what researchers call it. The river, that flows through lowland near Tomsk, may spread 60 km wide, flooding huge areas, all grasses, meadows, hay, shrubs and trees.

"In floods, during first few days, processes there are clear to us. Organic matter decomposes, carbon is released into water, from water into the atmosphere. But after a short time, algae appear there, and everything changes. At that point, the vegetation decomposition is not as important as activities of those algae. They can accumulate soluble carbon dioxide (CO2), and algae use it to build their biomass," Vorobyov said.

Logically, the more CO2 in the water, the more should be emissions into the atmosphere, he explained, but there scientists faced a situation where a lot of CO2 in the water would not emit into the atmosphere. Even vice versa: the water absorbs even more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

The biggest discovery was that in the Ob basin, in small rivers, the carbon content is significantly higher and its emission is several times higher than in other northern and Arctic territories. This means that the climate will be changing not so rapidly. "Western Siberia's contribution into slowing climate change is immeasurably higher than the contribution of other territories. Due to a lot of swamps, peat soils, a large floodplain," he said.

"The big is seen from a distance"

"Our main focus was the Arctic, but you can't study the Arctic just sitting in the Arctic, because "the big is seen from a distance," as Yesenin said. Otherwise, the opinion may be wrong. All major Siberian rivers originate in the Altai-Sayan mountains system and run northbound," he continued.

The vegetation, flooded there, is "brewed" like tea, and further on it flows into the river, getting eventually into the World Ocean - the main climate regulator. According to scientists, all processes related to global warming begin in the south - not at all in the north. "That was very weird and in fact, nobody has addressed this matter. We were 10 years ahead of the global science, having created this mega-profile, or megatranset approach," he noted.

A mega-profile, he explained, is an axis, a conditional line along which research is conducted. For example, Kaibasovo is one of the stations of the mega profile created along the Ob River - from the source to the mouth. However, there is another axis that scientists are just starting to explore - it stretches from west to east, along the continental gradient - the climate severity increase.

In the conversation, Borilo mentioned the "third axis" - a horizontal one, where the "third pole" is the mountains and glaciers that are located there. "For example, permafrost exists also in the Altai Mountains - it is the high-altitude permafrost. If you look from top to bottom: first the ice, then the mosses, shrubs, then the forest. A similar, though horizontal, picture is when you go to the tundra, while processes are the same, and the weather is changing all over the Earth," she explained.

Siberia is a universe

"To understand the processes, we did a lot at the first stage, and some would say the topic could be closed: the main trends are clear and are not likely to change significantly. But this territory is unique - an endless field for work. Siberia is a universe to explore endlessly," Kirpotin noted.

Take for example his current studies of earth ants. A huge number of anthills are scattered across the floodplain, literally on every square meter or even more often. However, no one can say for sure what kind of work those small creatures are doing from an ecological point of view, what contribution they make, what they may influence.

"We have walked along the entire Ob - all the way from the Altai to Salekhard. We've made measurements everywhere and found out that in the upper reaches, before Tomsk, the Ob absorbs CO2, and after Tomsk it begins to emit it. Why? We have been working on it. Everything is very difficult: quite many [specialists] are involved in the carbon balance, and almost nobody studies mechanisms that influence it. When we learn these mechanisms, then at the next stage we will be able to influence them, to improve the Earth's atmosphere. Next, when we put it in order, we would be able to take care of the atmosphere of Mars, Venus, we will surf the space," Vorobyov said, adding with a smile that it is practically impossible to study all those mechanisms to the end, since everything changes with time: the climate, the carbon balance, and even those mechanisms.

Kirpotin pointed to the importance of such long-term monitoring. The longer it continues the more valuable and significant its results become.

No doing without Siberia

"All the studies are needed to create a model of the floodplain ecosystem. Any research of the kind eventually ends up with a mathematical model, then it is presented to the world scientific community and then it is used in global climate conclusions. The latter, are constantly recalculated, updated, and improved. This seemingly small piece of land - Siberia - gives very high emission rates," Vorobyov said.

All the aspects are used to put together a complete picture of the Earth's atmosphere and to create mechanisms to reduce the carbon footprint. Exactly for this purpose, Kaibasovo has become part of a carbon polygon, which will collect data on carbon dioxide emissions by using special equipment in compliance with international methods. The Tomsk University's polygon unites four territories, which together cover three ecosystems - forest, swamp and floodplain.

"Last year, we bought an American tower, it will be installed soon. This year we will buy another two towers to have them installed on all ecosystems. And, whenever everything is ready, we will launch simultaneously a new series of climate monitoring at all the stations," Borilo said.

Buying the first tower was nothing special - with preliminary agreements, thus the price changed quite a bit and only due to logistics. This year, however, to logistics adds a price spike, she said.

"While in the past we could buy three, now we can afford only two, and not that sophisticated towers. In addition to the tower itself, we need special equipment. We had to buy the very minimum. Another problem is time - nobody can guarantee we will receive them this year. But, anyway, the process has started," the scientist said.

A carbon farm will be next to the Kaibasovo polygon. It will be used to practice technologies to accumulate effectively carbon from water, air and soil for subsequent processing or disposal. The ultimate goal is to compensate for the environmental damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

"Whatever may happen in politics, as for climate, we cannot be isolated from any countries. A too significant share of ecosystems necessary to understand global climate processes is located in Siberia and Russia," Borilo said in conclusion.