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Adapting to climate change in Archangel

Ships
Temperatures are unpredictable in Russia's remote Archangel region

Changing temperatures mean the hardy people of northern Russia are having to adapt, but they are not yet sure to what, the BBC's Moscow correspondent James Rodgers finds out.

It is -25C and the unrelenting sub-polar wind makes it feel even colder.

Frostbite is a constant danger. As we prepare to head out onto the ice of the White Sea, I notice that everyone around me is covering every part of their skin except that around their eyes. I do the same.

It does not sound like ideal working conditions. In fact, it is the kind of weather the people here say is lacking.

I am with a team of herring fishermen. Their base is the Lenin collective farm, in the village of Tamitsa, about two hours by road from the northern Russian port city of Archangel.

We head out onto the sea ice, travelling about five kilometres in sledges drawn by snowmobiles.

A line of branches stuck in the ice marks our route; the final one, our destination.

The men fish by cutting holes in the sea's frozen surface, lowering their nets, and returning with each tide to retrieve their catch.

Fishermen
Herring hauls are not as large as they used to be

This has not been a good year. The day I travel with them, the haul is pitifully small. "Tears, not fish," remarks one of the fishermen, as a few herring flap at his feet.

"We used to catch up to 10 tonnes of fish in a net like this," Andrei Yurchenkov, the collective farm's director said, as we watched the catch emerge from beneath the ice.

"Now you can see for yourself - there's no fish at all. And this has already been going on for two weeks, right from the start of the season."

Sharp end

That season is starting later. For the third year in a row, the fishermen say that they had to wait until January for the ice to be thick enough to bear the weight of their snowmobiles.

The consequences of climate change for the fishermen do not end there.

Map

Andrei is convinced that his dwindling catches are a result of the fish behaving differently because the weather is changing.

"In higher latitude regions, such as Canada, Russia and Scandinavia, climate change may lead to net benefits for temperature increases of 2 or 3C, through higher agricultural yields, lower winter mortality, lower heating requirements, and a possible boost to tourism," concluded the British government's 2006 Stern review on the economics of climate change.

The report contained a warning, too. "But these regions will also experience the most rapid rates of warming, damaging infrastructure, human health, local livelihoods and biodiversity."

The people of the Archangel region do seem to be at the sharp end. An economy which has evolved to work in this harsh environment is being forced to adapt as the weather becomes harder to predict.

In search of positive consequences, I went to talk to Vladimir Shapin. He grows flowers and vegetables in hothouses. It is produce which would otherwise have to be brought in from far outside the region.

"Warm winters allow us to save on heating costs," he explained.

But the milder weather means more cloud - so it is a mixed blessing. "It's darker when it's warm and we need to spend more money on lighting. But overall, of course, we save money when it's warmer," Vladimir concludes.

Greatest challenge

Irina Grishenko is the region's chief meteorologist.

Forest road
Timber trucks need tracks to be frozen solid in order to travel safely
"The past Decembers have all been very warm. December 2006 was eight to 10 degrees warmer than normal," she told me.

"This means there were a lot of thaws. They were sustained, and intensive. All of this is not very good for industry here in the north - especially for logging," she told me.

The logging trade suffers because, like the fishermen, they need the ice. The forest tracks in the Russian north are mostly unsurfaced. The timber trucks can use them best when they are frozen solid.

I spent just over a week in the Archangel region. When I arrived, the temperature was about -5C. Within three days it had fallen below -30C. Then it rose again to around -5C.

That is the greatest challenge for the people trying to live and work with climate change: unpredictability. They know they must adapt - they just don't know to what.

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