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Climate beyond control, Russia Is Burning; Cloudburst In Leh

August 23, 2010

Claude Arpi
The Statesman (India)
August 20, 2010

WHAT is wrong with the planet? Russia is burning.
More than a week after wildfires started ravaging
several areas around Moscow, it was reported that
more than 500 forest fires, covering a total area
of 465,000 acres, were still raging. People are
fleeing the Russian capital, besieged by a heavy
fog. On TV, one could see phantasmagoric sights
of the Kremlin in a haze one associates with
London (but with 42 degree Celsius).

With the fires and heat not showing any sign of
receding, Russia had no choice but to put an
embargo on the sale of wheat ~ a decision that
has had a cascading effect on world cereal
prices. The situation is so serious that the
authorities have extended a state of emergency in
the Moscow region until 15 September. Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin, who visited the Voronezh
region south of Moscow, declared: "The heat is
unimaginable for these locations, the strongest in 140 years."

AFP reported: "Russia has for days battled to cut
back hundreds of blazes across the country,
including fires in a nature reserve near its top
nuclear research centre in Sarov, a town still
closed to foreigners as in Soviet times."

The President, Dmitry Medvedev, sacked several
senior naval officers for having failed to stop
wildfires coming close to the nuclear research
facility. Medvedev even warned the head of the
Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, for not
tackling a fire at a naval logistics base in
Kolomna, south-east of Moscow. According to
reports: "The damage was colossal: the staff
headquarters, financial department, 13 warehouses
containing aeronautical equipment and 17 storage
areas containing vehicles were destroyed in the blaze."

Then at 5:20 p.m on 11 August, a mudslide hit
Drugchu (Zhouqu county in Chinese), in the Gannan
Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Gansu province.
The county lies in the valley of the Bailong
river, a tributary of the Jialing river, which
flows into the mighty Yangtze in Chongqing. The
famous Tibetan monastery of Labrang Tashi Kyil,
one of the largest on the plateau is close by. In
the case of Drugchu, the tragedy might not be entirely ‘natural’.

Xinhua admitted that the factors behind the
mudslide were the "mountainous terrain and loss
of ground cover." In other words, heavy
deforestation. According to the deputy director
of the Department of Geological Environment at
the Ministry of Land and Resources, "a lingering
drought lasting almost nine months in some local
areas and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that might
have loosened the mountainside and caused some
cracks are also reasons behind the devastating mudslide."

In 1997, Ma Dongta, an engineering expert at the
Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment in
Chengdu had warned that a large-scale mudslide
could occur in the area. Nobody had listened. The
Tibetan blogger and poetess, Woeser, quotes
several government reports: "There are 47
hydro-electric construction projects in the
region and so far 15 hydro-electric power plants
have been constructed, 14 more are under
construction." It added that local Tibetans
believe that the extensive construction projects
have upset the region’s fragile eco-system.

At 9.30 p.m. the next day, at the other end of
the Tibetan world , intense convective cloud
clusters developed over Leh, the capital of
Ladakh. As scientists described it, clouds began
"disgorging their moisture between 1.30 am and 2
am." Leh is an unusual place for a cloudburst as
it is a cold desert region with low average
rainfall. The maximum rainfall recorded in Leh
was 96.2 mm in a 24- hour period in 1933. This
cloudburst yielded 250 mm rainfall within an
hour. The phenomenon was clearly local; an Air
Force observatory some distance away from the
cloudburst zone, recorded only 12.8 mm of rain.

But what is a cloudburst? According to
meteorologists, it is "a sudden aggressive
rainstorm falling for a short period of time
limited to a small geographical area." They  say
that the rain from a cloudburst is "usually of
the shower type with a fall rate equal to or
greater than 100 mm per hour." Due to a rapid
condensation of the clouds, the entire amount of
water tumbles down on a small area with disastrous consequences.

An eye-witness of the Leh tragedy recounts: "I
returned from Pangong [Lake] to Leh to find
something rather unusual. For Ladakh to have
successive days of rain was almost unheard of. I
asked my guesthouse owner about it, and he was
unequivocal in his answer, ‘It never does. Global warming’!"

The foreign tourist added: "On the night  of 5
August, I had dinner with a group of Indian
travellers. The drizzle that had been steadily
falling for an hour or so suddenly became an
absolute deluge. The storm lasted an hour, the
sound was of a hundred million ball bearings
falling on metal. Lightning ripped across the sky
like constant static along a black wool quilt. It
was quite a storm. In one hour, the land of
Ladakh was forever changed. This vast country shifted."

The next morning, the tourist went to the bazaar.
The bus stand was submerged. "A vast river of mud
and rock had torn through central Leh, ripping
apart houses, demolishing shops, flattening
structures to the ground. Buses were tossed about
like toys, slammed up against buildings, wedged
under trucks, flattened and twisted in
incomprehensible shapes. As I walked down the
length of the slide, I realized that it was far
more than the bus station. The cascade extended
all the way down the valley, two miles or more,
and much of lower Leh was, well, utterly ruined."

The next day he went to Choglamsar, a small
village a few kilometers from Leh where he saw
another river of mud and rock and
incomprehensible devastation: "As I write this,
at least 500 are still missing in Choglamsar alone."

But that is not all. We have seen the tragic
pictures from Pakistan where the floods have
displaced 15 or 20 million people and killed a couple of thousands.

And the immense iceberg, which has parted ways
with a polar glacier in Greenland. The iceberg is
four times the size of Manhattan. According to
scientists, the Arctic had not lost such a mass of ice since 1962.

Are all these events co-related? Though it is
difficult to prove anything, weather scientists
are perplexed. In an article in the New York
Times, titled "In Weather Chaos, a Case for
Global Warming, Justin Gillis explains:
"Seemingly disconnected, these far-flung
disasters are reviving the question of whether
global warming is causing more weather extremes."
He quotes Jay Lawrimore, chief of climate
analysis at the National Climatic Data Center in
Asheville, USA: "The climate is changing, extreme
events are occurring with greater frequency and
in many cases with greater intensity."

What is weird is that a few days earlier, from 2
to 6 August, delegates from around the world met
in Bonn. They were invited by the UN Convention
on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the international
body coordinating negotiations after the
Copenhagen Summit and before the Cancun meeting.
Though another round of talks will be held in
Taijin, China in October, there is now very
little hope to sign a binding international
agreement to reduce greenhouse gases at the next
UN conference on climate change scheduled for
December in Cancun, Mexico. Everyone agreed that
the talks proceeded in reverse gear.

One conference succeeds another. While the
decision-makers keep talking, debating and
quarrelling, the climate tumbles out of control.
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