FROZEN ASSETS: SIBERIAN OIL BOOM
Send Me to Siberia
Oil transforms a Russian outpost.
By Paul Starobin
Photograph by Gerd Ludwig
It's around midnight, and the couples on the dance floor at the Palace Restaurant are gently swaying to a slow one. "Za nas, za neft—To us, to oil," the singer croons,
Wherever life sends us,To us, to oil…We fill our glasses to the brim.
It is Oilers' Day in the western Siberian province of Khanty-Mansi. This annual holiday, honoring the hard labor of the oil workers, the neftyaniki, falls early in September, after the worst of the summer mosquito season and before the first snowfall, in October. Hours earlier, as daylight faded, thousands crowded into a huge outdoor sports complex. A stage was framed by a deep-green backdrop of unbroken forest. Balloons were released, torches were lit, and a troupe belted out a song:
There is only one joy for us,And this is all we need,To wash our faces in the new oil,Of the drilling rig.
Little wonder Russians are toasting oil: These are boom times. Global oil prices have increased tenfold since 1998, and Russia has pulled ahead of Saudi Arabia as the world's top crude oil producer. The Kremlin's budget now overflows with funds for new schools, roads, and national defense projects, and Moscow's nouveau riche are plunking down millions of dollars for mansion-scale "dachas." The pumping heart of the boom is western Siberia's boggy oil fields, which produce around 70 percent of Russia's oil—some seven million barrels a day. For Khanty-Mansi, a territory nearly the size of France, the bonanza provides an unparalleled opportunity to create modern, even desirable living conditions in a region whose very name evokes a harsh, desolate place. Khanty-Mansi's regional capital, scene of the holiday revelries, is being rebuilt with oil-tax proceeds. The new structures include an airport terminal (once a wooden shack with an outhouse), an art museum featuring paintings by 19th-century Russian masters, and a pair of lavishly equipped boarding schools for children gifted in mathematics and the arts. Even the provincial town of Surgut, a backwater only a few decades ago, is laying out new suburbs and is plagued by traffic jams.
But the opportunity presented by oil could slip through the region's fingers. Despite the remarkable surge in oil prices, oil production in western Siberia has leveled off in recent years. Output barely rose from 2004 to 2007—a period when the rulers of the Kremlin, a cold-eyed and control-oriented crew, seized choice fields once held by private oil barons. The oligarchs, as they were known, were rapacious sorts who jousted among themselves for spoils. But they also heavily invested in the fields in order to maximize production and profits. The Kremlin, by contrast, aims to exploit oil not only as a source of national wealth, but also as a political tool for making Russia a great world power once again. Its heavy-handed tactics have made foreign investors wary and could undermine the boom—and with it Khanty-Mansi's chances for a brighter future.
WESTERN SIBERIA'S great oil deposits lie under lands that an exiled Marxist revolutionary, suffering in the gulag, once called the "waste places of the Earth." But to someone visiting by choice, oil country looks fetchingly wild and pristine. The terrain is dominated by taiga—dense forest of spindly birch, cedar, and pine—and boloto, peaty marsh that is frozen for most of the year and in spots bubbles with methane. There are no mountains and few hills, but there are numerous lakes, rivers, and streams.
Oil exploration began in earnest here in the mid-1960s. When geologists reported that large reserves of oil were waiting to be tapped, the Kremlin organized a frenzied military-style invasion of "pioneers" and bulldozers to ramp up production. Western Siberia, it turned out, had even more black gold than anyone had dreamed: More than 70 billion barrels have been pumped over the past 40 years.
In the early days "Siberia was all frontier," says Khanty-Mansi's governor, Alexander Filipenko. The governor appears older than his 58 years, with a shock of gray hair, watery eyes, and a mottled nose that has weathered its share of frost. Filipenko arrived in Khanty-Mansi in the early 1970s with orders to lay a bridge over the Ob River, which in the late 19th century was a route for squalid barges transporting prisoners to their final places of banishment. The bridge project took four years of toil under brutal conditions. Yet despite the hardships, the governor looks back at that time the way an old man might recall his first love for a beautiful young woman.
IMMIGRATION IS COOL!
Mexico's Other Border
For many immigrants heading north, the first dangerous crossing is not the one into the U.S. It’s southern Mexico where the peril begins.
By Cynthia Gorney
National Geographic Contributing Writer
Photograph by Alex Webb
Jessenia and Armando López crossed the Suchiate River from Guatemala into Mexico on a hired raft of wood planks lashed to giant inner tubes.
The raftsman pegged them immediately as undocumented migrants and charged them ten times the usual fare, even though Jessenia thought she had disguised herself as a local lady by wearing platform shoes and carrying all her belongings in a homemaker’s plastic shopping bag. She had managed to bathe and wash her clothes daily since they had left Nicaragua—in Mexico, Jessenia reminded her husband, thieves and officials identify migrants not only by their packs and caps and dirty walking sneakers, but also by the smell of their bodies on crowded buses. She put on makeup and perfume every morning, and dangling earrings. These were the rituals that gave her momentum, a certain degree of calm: launder, improve appearance, pray.
When they reached the Mexican side of the river, Armando unloaded the used mountain bicycle they had bought in Guatemala, and they waited while a uniformed soldier on the riverbank rifled indifferently through Jessenia’s bag, explaining that he was looking for weapons or drugs. Then the soldier assessed them a ten-dollar bribe, and the Lópezes got on the bicycle and began to ride north.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans cross illegally into Mexico—400,235, to cite one oddly precise estimate from the Mexican National Institute of Migration—along the country’s southern border, which angles over 750 miles of river and volcanic slope and jungle at the top of Central America. Nobody knows exactly how many of those migrants are headed to the United States, but most put that figure at 150,000 or more a year, and the pace of illegal migration north has picked up dramatically over the past decade, propelled in part by the lingering aftermath of the 1970s and ’80s civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. In depictions of this modern Latin American migration into the United States, the image of a great wave is often invoked, and Mexico’s southern border today feels like the place in distant water where the wave first rises and swells and gathers uncontainable propulsive force.
ICELAND’S ALUMINUM SMELTER
The people of Iceland awaken to a stark choice: exploit a wealth of clean energy or keep their landscape pristine.
By Marguerite Del Giudice
Photograph by Jonas Bendiksen
One of the main things to understand about Iceland is how tiny the population is and what it can be like to live here because of that. There’s the feeling that everybody on this isolated subarctic island knows just about everybody else, or at least can be associated (through family, friends, neighborhood, profession, political party, or school) by no more than one degree of separation. Imagine a country of 310,000 people, with most of them jammed in and around Reykjavík—a hip European capital known for its dimly lit coffeehouses, live music, and hard-drinking nightlife. That’s where all the good jobs are, and the chances of running into somebody you know are so high that it’s hard, as one commentator mused, to have a love affair without getting caught.
“We are,” said one bespectacled sixtysomething newspaper editor wearing a blazing white shirt, “very close-knit.” Then he clasped his hands together, as if in an embrace. Or a vise.
The consequence of living in what amounts to a small town on an island in the middle of nowhere, with its vertiginous links going back dozens of generations to the origins of Viking myth (a gene pool so pure that molecular biologists drool), is that it functions somewhat like a big extended family. “As soon as you open your mouth,” one observer said, “they’re all over you.” It’s like living on a mobile—disturbing any part of it could generate a ripple throughout. So while Iceland in many ways remains an open and transparent society, there’s an underlying guardedness among the people when it comes to talking politics and public policy—concerning such things as how the country should go about striking a balance between protecting its environment and growing its economy, which is more or less what this story is about.
LHC PARTICLE COLLIDER
At the Heart of All Matter
The hunt for the God particle
By Joel Achenbach
Photograph by Peter Ginter
If you were to dig a hole 300 feet straight down from the center of the charming French village of Crozet, you'd pop into a setting that calls to mind the subterranean lair of one of those James Bond villains. A garishly lit tunnel ten feet in diameter curves away into the distance, interrupted every few miles by lofty chambers crammed with heavy steel structures, cables, pipes, wires, magnets, tubes, shafts, catwalks, and enigmatic gizmos.
This technological netherworld is one very big scientific instrument, specifically, a particle accelerator-an atomic peashooter more powerful than any ever built. It's called the Large Hadron Collider, and its purpose is simple but ambitious: to crack the code of the physical world; to figure out what the universe is made of; in other words, to get to the very bottom of things.
Starting sometime in the coming months, two beams of particles will race in opposite directions around the tunnel, which forms an underground ring 17 miles in circumference. The particles will be guided by more than a thousand cylindrical, supercooled magnets, linked like sausages. At four locations the beams will converge, sending the particles crashing into each other at nearly the speed of light. If all goes right, matter will be transformed by the violent collisions into wads of energy, which will in turn condense back into various intriguing types of particles, some of them never seen before. That's the essence of experimental particle physics: You smash stuff together and see what other stuff comes out.
Those masses of equipment spaced along the tunnel will scrutinize the spray from the collisions. The largest, ATLAS, has a detector that's seven stories tall. The heaviest, CMS (for Compact Muon Solenoid), is heftier than the Eiffel Tower. "Bigger is better if you're searching for smaller" could be the motto at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known by its historic acronym CERN, the international laboratory that houses the Large Hadron Collider.
It sounds scary, and it is. Building the LHC in a tunnel was a prudent move. The particle beam could drill a hole in just about anything, although the most likely victim would be the apparatus itself. One minor calamity has already happened: A magnet all but jumped out of its skin during a test in March 2007. Since then 24 magnets have been retrofitted to fix a design flaw. The people running the LHC aren't in a rush to talk about all the things that can go wrong, perhaps because the public has a way of worrying that mad scientists will accidentally create a black hole that devours the Earth.
The more plausible fear is that the collider will fail to find the things that physicists insist must be lurking in the deep substrate of reality. Such a big machine needs to produce big science, big answers, something that can generate a headline as well as interesting particles. But even an endeavor of this scale isn't going to answer all the important questions of matter and energy. Not a chance. This is because a century of particle physics has given us a fundamental truth: Reality doesn't reveal its secrets easily.
Put it this way: The universe is a tough nut to crack.
Go back a little more than a century to the late 1800s, and look at the field of physics: a mature science, and rather complacent. There were those who believed there wasn't much more to do than smooth out some rough edges in nature's plan. There was a sensible order to things, a clockwork universe governed by Newtonian forces, with atoms as the foundation of matter. Atoms were indivisible by definition—the word comes from the Greek for "uncuttable."
But then strange things started popping up in laboratories: x-rays, gamma rays, a mysterious phenomenon called radioactivity. Physicist J. J. Thomson discovered the electron. Atoms were not indivisible after all, but had constituents. Was it, as Thomson believed, a pudding, with electrons embedded like raisins? No. In 1911 physicist Ernest Rutherford announced that atoms are mostly empty space, their mass concentrated in a tiny nucleus orbited by electrons.
Physics underwent one revolution after another. Einstein's special theory of relativity (1905) begat the general theory of relativity (1915), and suddenly even such reliable concepts as absolute space and absolute time had been discarded in favor of a mind-boggling space-time fabric in which two events can never be said to be simultaneous. Matter bends space; space directs how matter moves. Light is both a particle and a wave. Energy and mass are inter- changeable. Reality is probabilistic and not deterministic: Einstein didn't believe that God plays dice with the universe, but that became the scientific orthodoxy.
© Joseph Izrael 2008