Leave it to those pesky Russians to go looking for the bright side of climate change.
Russian scientists studying global warming are now saying it could help agriculture to boom in historically frigid Siberia, a region one might consider Russia’s Alaska.
“From 50 to 85 percent of central Siberia is predicted to be climatically suitable for agriculture by the end of the century, and only soil potential would limit crop advance and expansion to the north,” wrote Nadezhda Tchebakova from the Krasnoyarsk Scientific Center who published along with three colleagues in the journal Environmental Research Letters. “Crop production could increase twofold. Future Siberian climatic resources could provide the potential for a great variety of crops to grow that previously did not exist on these lands.”
All this comes only 14 years after Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy co-authored a book titled “The Siberian Curse” that suggested the best move Russia could make would be to bail out of Siberia. They book argued Russia was sacrificing precious economic and human capital in trying to develop a frozen wasteland.
“I’ve been to northern Siberia and the Russian Arctic half a dozen times, and can remember meeting very few people who did not express a desire to leave, James Meeks admitted later in examining the Curse for the The London Review of Books. “Often there’ll be a token ‘Come and visit us in the summer, the country’s beautiful, we’ll go fishing,’ but generally they love the climate only as far as they can frighten visitors with it: ‘Sometimes with the blizzards the planes can’t fly for two weeks at a time.”
“Whether it is the miners in Vorkuta being paid in sandwiches (it was snowing when I landed, on 21 June), or the former slave-labour camp inmates, now pensioners, who are still economic prisoners in the Arctic city of Norilsk sixty years after the Soviets kidnapped them from western Ukraine, or the alcoholism and tuberculosis among the native Evenks in the forest town of Tura, there are too many reasons to be miserable in the Russian north.”
Some of this – sans pay in sandwiches, the slave labor and the tuberculosis – might sound familiar to Alaskans living outside the state’s urban cluster at the head of Cook Inlet. Wild Alaska still faces some of the same problems as Siberia: lack of employment, frigid winters and booze. Maybe in that order, maybe in some other order.
Meeks didn’t paint a pretty picture of his travels in Siberia.
“We had hoped, from Pevek, to reach Cape Schmidt, another loss-making gold town to the east,” he wrote. “What could be sadder than a subsidised gold mine? A subsidised gold mine which doesn’t receive its subsidies, for one. Cape Schmidt was on the brink of emergency evacuation – indeed, according to some reports, the evacuation had already begun – because the heating oil which should have been delivered in summer, to fill the storage tanks carved out of the permafrost, hadn’t been despatched.
“I was particularly keen to go there because the town was named after Otto Schmidt, the Russian explorer whose apparently genuine belief that the Arctic could be made to bloom, that tens of millions of people could live well there, fitted conveniently with the Stalinist decision to use slave labour to open up the Russian far north. ‘People believe that the Arctic is a wasteland, useless to mankind,’ he told the journalist H.P. Smolka for his 1937 book, Forty Thousand against the Arctic. ‘They are utterly wrong. The cold is no obstacle against human habitation . . . We get larger cabbage leaves in the Arctic than on the Volga.’”
Greening the north
Schmidt sounds like he might have fit well in early Alaska. The Matansuka Valley Colony was started 45 miles north of Anchorage in 1935 by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. It was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s answer to Stalin’s northern development. The U.S. didn’t kidnap anyone and relocate them; it just offered bribes.
At the height of The Great Depression, starving farm families in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin were offered 40 acres of free land and federal help in starting over in Alaska.
Thus was born an Alaska dream that took a long time to die. As late as the 1980s, the late Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond, the 49th state’s favored political icon, and sidekick Bob Palmer were dreaming of vast plains of Alaska grain.
Palmer was a former Peace Corps director for Tanzania and a one-time professor of agriculture at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Palmer, who died in 2004, spearheaded Hammond’s plan to turn Alaska into a new American breadbasket.
“Alaska is tapping its oil wells for a second product — bountiful cropland — to ensure a continuing harvest long after the oil runs out,” Jonathan Harsch reported for the Christian Science Monitor from Chicago in 1980. “Over the past 18 months, forests have been stripped and converted into rich fields of grain. The transformation, at a cost so far of $15 million for the first 50,000-acre, state-run demonstration project at Delta Junction, southeast of Fairbanks, has been made possible by oil revenues. It comes at a time when agricultural experts are increasingly concerned by the steady loss of US farmland to urban sprawl and industrialization.”
The 1980s were a heady period in Alaska history. The state was flush with oil revenues for the first time and really didn’t know what to do with all the money. Palmer and Hammond had a big idea on to where to spend it.
Spurred on by that duo, Harsch’s story quoted from a report from the Alaska Rural Development Council claiming that “agriculturally speaking, Alaska is in a rather unique position. In this day of worldwide urban pressure, increased food consumption, increased population, and better diets, Alaska is one of the few places where vast acreages of virgin potential agricultural land exist. Alaska must look to world markets for selling its agricultural products, and we must react to the worldwide demand for agricultural products.”
His story ran under a headline that proclaimed “Alaska oil’s new bonanza: vast amber waves of grain.”
“The news was announced here (in Chicago),” he wrote, “because Alaskan grain soon will be traded regularly in the busy pits of the Chicago Board of Trade, because Alaska is becoming a major market for the farm equipment manufacturers of the Midwest, and because Alaska’s potential farmland, Hammond said, is ‘about the size of the farm production lands of Washington, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, and most of Nebraska combined.'”
Flash forward to today and the whole exercise, and especially a key part of the effort called the “Delta barley project” in the Interior near the community of Delta, has become a poster boy for Alaska government failure.
“Rather than face up to the writing on the wall that the state economy will need to shrink as it enters its post-petroleum phase, the state spends its time and energy continuing the search for the economic development silver bullet that will bring on the next economic boom,” the economist Scott Goldsmith at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage wrote in 2011. “Much of this search involves spending state resources on large-scale projects that proponents guarantee will lead to economic growth. Although most fail to live up to expectations (like the old Delta barley project), some are successful, and hope springs eternal.”
Goldsmith could almost have headlined that presentation “The Alaska Curse.”
Fools or visionaries?
But maybe Hammond and Palmer, and for that matter Russia’s Schmidt, were just decades ahead of their time.
Tchebakova and her colleagues present a pretty rosy picture for a future Siberia:
“The (future) climatic resources of Siberia provide the potential to grow a great variety of crops, primarily basic crops: spring wheat, winter rye and wheat, cereals (oats, buckwheat, barley), early ripe legumes (peas); forage—forage grains (millet, barley, oats, vetch) and root plants; annuals—maize for silage, sunflower silage and seeds; perennials—forage crops, legumes (lucerne, clover, sainfoin, melilot); and grasses (couch-grass, timothy-grass). In a warmer climate, with a prolonged growing season, productive lands in southern Siberia may become suitable for introducing new warmth-loving crops: melons, gourds, fruits and berries. Therefore, some adaptation measures of Siberian agriculture to climate warming would be to farm these crops, which would also decrease their import and transportation costs. Additionally, southern Siberia may become a land for farming oil crops (rape seed, maize grain, soya beans, etc), which could be used for biofuel production and thus promote the development of a biofuel industry in Siberia.”
The wild cards, they suggest, are soils and water. Siberia’s future climate is expected to be drier, they say, but the big rivers of Siberia would provide water for irrigation to solve that problem.
More difficult to predict, they add, is what lands will become arable and which might turn into vast swamps as the permafrost beneath melts.
“Maybe this territory will transform into a big bog,” scientist Elena Parfenova from the V.N. Sukachev Institute of Forest of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences told The Siberian Times. “But it will be better than now because the severe winter cold will be milder.”
The Times ran a July 20 story declaring “By 2080 Siberia to become ‘the go-to place to live due to climate change.’
The story featured photos of Siberian vineyards, sandy beaches, the Novosibirsk train station on the Trans-Siberian Railway and a rather shocking number of young women in bikinis and swimsuits.
When it comes to agriculture, Siberia has a leg up on Alaska because the nearly 6,000 mile railway connects the entire southern part of Siberia to Moscow in the east and the port of Vladivostok in the West.
Alaska’s advantage is that the state has identified tens of thousands of acres of land with soils suitable to agriculture from Delta in the Interior to Kenny Lake in the east to Bethel in the West where Tim Meyers envisions turning the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta into a new agricultural wonderland fertilized with fish waste from the bounty of salmon returning to local rivers.
Meyers started farming near Bethel inside plastic with so-called “grow tunnels,” but Meyers Farms has been increasingly rolling out onto what was once open tundra.
“I hate to say this,” he confessed to a KYUK Bethel reporter a couple of years ago, “but I guess I’m taking advantage of the fact that it is getting warmer.”
Climate change, as it should go without saying, is change, and in change there is more than just difficulty; there is opportunity. Researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks now believe the Alaska climate might already have warmed enough to make it possible to grow a couple of varieties of Scandinavian wheat in the 49th state.
Same old problem
Alaska, unfortunately, faces the same problem with agriculture that it faces with natural gas. The state has the resource, but the costs of getting it to market outweigh its value.
Alaska is “a vast country,” as Milan Shipka, the director of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, explained to Hannah Hoag of News Deeply last year. “There have been huge investments in other states that have just not been there for Alaska. It’s largely unroaded, so it’s difficult to get anywhere. There have been areas identified as having top potential for agricultural development, but there might be a big river in the way – and there is not money to build a bridge, et cetera, et cetera, so it’s an infrastructure thing, too.”
Even where there are roads in Alaska, farmers are at the end of them a long way from markets in the Lower 48 states or Asia. Lack of infrastructure helped kill the Delta barley project.
To get the barley to markets in Asia, it needed to be trucked to the port of Valdez on a marginal road, or trucked to Fairbanks on a better road, loaded on a train, and hauled to Seward to be put on a ship. Some Delta farmers did manage to figure out other ways to make a living and are surviving, but the export project never got off the ground.
And the problems it faced remain a testament to the difficulty of getting big-time agriculture started in Alaska.
“I think the infrastructure challenge is so great that it’s going to be a long time before that problem is solved,” Shipka said.
Former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski has pitched a rail connection to Canada in a joint effort with the Yukon Territory which might open markets for all sorts of products – Yukon minerals; Alaska agriculture; Alberta, Canada tar sands which could be processed in the Alaska Interior with their oil then fed into the TransAlaska Pipeline System; and more.
As with most Alaska projects, however, the problem is the uber-costs. A 2016 study done by the province of Alberta pegged the cost of a rail link to Alaska at 28- to 34-million Canadian loonies, or about $22 million to $27 billion in American dollars.
That’s expensive, but still only about half the cost of the proposed Alaska gas pipeline which has been estimated to cost anywhere from $45 to $65 billion.
That idea has drawn little attention since, but the Alaska Railroad has become the first, and so far only, railroad in the country to win experiment with moving liquified natural gas (LNG) by rail. It successfully hauled 7,000 gallons of LNG from Anchorage to Fairbanks last fall.
Shipments have been stalled since by the threats from the Center for Biological Diversity, which says it will sue to stop shipping without further study. The environmental group last year sued the federal government over what it called secret plans to ship a “volatile fossil fuel” “through Alaska’s biggest cities and majestic wilderness.”
“Expanding the country’s fossil fuel infrastructure by putting LNG tankers on our railways is a terrible idea. It deepens our climate crisis and puts families along rail lines at risk,” the Center’s Miyoko Sakashita said in a prepared statement. “But to do it under a veil of secrecy, denying the public’s right to scrutinize this plan, is simply unacceptable, so we’re asking the courts to intervene.”
The Center for Biological Diversity has largely fought any development in Alaska, and that might be the biggest problem any future Alaska agriculture faces. Expanding agriculture to take advantage of global warming would require clearing vast sections of wilderness.
The footprint required for successful, industrial agriculture makes that required for oil development appear small and dwarfs that of mining, an industry Alaskans these days largely oppose. Alaska’s greatest economic impediment might be Alaskans.
The Not-in-My-Backyard movement is strong in the 49th state, and everyone has a backyard.
CORRECTION: This story was edited on July 31, 2017 to reflect a successful shipment of LNG from Anchorage to Fairbanks.