27/06/2007

Meteorologists versus shamans

Siberian-born Juri Rytcheu pokes fun at meteorologists and admits he wouldn't mind being a little warmer

Climate change is altering the face of the planet. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung asked writers from zones far and wide for first-hand accounts of how it is affecting them. Read also Leo Tuor on thawing snow in Surselva, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on a stifling Christmas in Nigeria, Romesh Gunesekera on how the rain foiled the plans of the perfect farmer and Kiran Nagarkar on the smogs of Bombay. All the stories here.

It's interesting that scientists can't agree. Is it getting warmer or colder? It's true, there are fewer people pushing the second line. The opinions are much more diverse when it comes to why the climate is changing. Is it because the sun is less active, maybe? Or due to the movement of the planets? The majority believe that man is to blame for everything – because of his lifestyle, the amount of carbon dioxide he produces, the fumes from his cars and from planes. Long-term prognoses are in the making about radical climate change on our planet. There's fear of catastrophic flooding or of the subtropics icing over.

This sort of vision of the future isn't exactly irrelevant to a simple man like me. But it worries me a lot less than the current state of the weather. Will the summer be quite warm or will there be a hard frost next winter?

But even these pretty simple tasks can't be mastered by modern science.

When I was a child a meteorological station was built next to our village, Uelen, on the banks of the Bering Sea. Various scientific instruments, thermometers, snow cutters and other sharp gadgets were fitted onto a special platform. But when my fellow countrymen asked the professional weather prophets to give them a forecast for the coming winter, they couldn't help.

In our jaranga, we used to say, "The polar scientists brought a lot of coal with them, so it's going to be a hard winter." At the same time I heard with my own ears the polar researchers giving a report on the coming winter based on the evidence that the locals were taking particular care with their heating this autumn and were laying special bundles of dried grass around the outer covers of their jarangas. That appeared to be enough evidence for them that the shamans had predicted a particularly frosty winter. Predicting the weather was one of the most important roles of the shamans and when our shamans in Uelen got their forecasts wrong, they tended to blame the meteorologists, who were believed to be too keen to measure everything – the wind force, the intensity of the rain, the consistency of the snow or the radiation of the sun, and the shamans believed nature did not take kindly to such prolonged attention. The shamans took a similar view of themometers wedged under people's arms by travelling Russian doctors, believing them to be a source of disease.

Perhaps the information overload is also to blame for our current fears about the climate.

At the same time we can't pretend that the ecological consitution of our planet has not deteriorated. Whole forests are being cut down, seas and oceans contaminated. A lot of rivers can no longer purify themselves. There isn't a single fish left in any of the rivers in the Chinaun region of the autonomous Chukot Peninsula, for example, which is comparable in size to an average European country. The expansive tundra looks a bit like a moonscape. Tractors leave their marks over thousands of kilometres, like festering wounds in the delicate and vulnerable land.

It's obviously not a great deal warmer in the Arctic and there's no palms springing up there yet. But the ice covering the northern Artic sea has got thinner and the polar bears can't migrate up north along adjoining pieces of ice, as they used to. Instead they're coming into the villages and towns in search of food, rifling through rubbish dumps, attacking pets, dogs and the odd person.

Mining gas and oil causes irreversible destruction to the environment. Seas and rivers which were once clean are now dirtied by oil residues. Torches of burning gas rival that wonderful theatre of nature, the Northern Lights, and often outdo it in brightness and duration.

In fact it wouldn't be that bad if it were a bit warmer in the Arctic. But just a little bit. Otherwise the concept of the cold North would be forgotten and the polar bears, walruses, seals and sea-cliff birds would disappear.

Of course I do personally support the fact that the international community is finally worrying about climate change and that they have recognised the threat caused by the jewel of creation, humans. But the question really is, whether we have the stamina to halt our mindless, destructive ways and whether we can stop sawing on the branch we're sitting on.

*

The story, written in Russian, originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on June 8, 2007.

Juri Rytchëu was born in 1930 into a family of Chukchi hunters in the Uelen settlement in Chukotka on the outer north-eastern edge of Siberia. He has written extensively in his native Chukchi language and in Russian. One of his books appeared in English in 2005, "A dream in Polar Fog".

Translated from the German by Abby Darcy.

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