Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Polluting the Arctic - Another Disaster in Russia's High North - Norilsk Diesel Spill

How someone be able to pollute some of the most pristine and serene places on earth - The arctic? Beauty and wilderness of that area is indeed a deterrent. If not for those two, then cold desert with extreme weather conditions can shake anyone's mind.

What if there is a fortune under that permafrost? I bet there would be someone, who wanted to get a share of that fortune; whatever be the cost. If environment controls are missing or not implemented, then nothing can stop or control or regulate those who wanted to exploit the fortune.

What lays beneath the ground is wanted by many. To help those dreams cities came up; industries came up. Most often environment laws remembered more on breaking than obeying.

Norlisk Spill

From ESA's Copernicus Sentinel-2

This is exactly what happened with Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company (part of Norilsk Nickel Group) run combined heat and power plant CHPP-3 based on Norilsk on May 29. On that day 21,000 cubic meters of diesel spilled into waters, contaminating approximately 1,80,000 sq.m of Russian North. Russians classified this spill as federal-level emergency.  This is not the first-time spills are happening in Russia's northern areas. Similar spill in 1994 - 21,000 cubic meters- resulted in contamination of large swaths.

"The former head of Rosprirodnadzor, Oleg Mitvol, has claimed that a cleanup of the disaster site will require more than 100 billion rubles ($1.42 billion) and at least 5–10 years for the local environment to recuperate"

·        Znak.com, June 3

“the fuel has contaminated [Lake] Pyasino […] it is imperative not to let it spread to the Pyasina River, which flows further north”

·        Governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai, Alexander Uss; Interfax, June 16

"According to the All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography, the incident in Norilsk caused significant damage to local aquatic biological resources, and it will take time to ascertain its actual impact"

·        TASS, June 18.

“the lake (Pyasino) is de facto dead”

·        Vladimir Kirillov, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Pyasino is (I better say 'was') a freshwater lake connected to Kara sea through Pysina River. This lake seems to be a dumping ground for many industries and no longer remains as a lake.

What is happening in Russia's High North?

Environment expert with Greenpeace Russia says that, the main culprit behind this accident is climate change which let to rapid melting of permafrost under the ground.

Permafrost melting is not limited to Russia; it is a wider phenomenon in entire arctic region. Once permafrost melted, then the land would sink in. This would damage structures built on top of that land. For a long time, those layers were frozen, and people did not have to worry about its melting. Hence large number of structures were built on top of those layers when it was stable.

Did this spill happen due to climate change only? Alexey Knizhnikov (World Wildlife Federation–Russia) says no. As per him, CHPP-3 “should have been fortified with dams blocking the flow of [locally stored] toxic substances”. It is not that, there are no environmental code for the same. However, when it comes to cost, companies cut the corners if they can. Same facility had an accident - although at a smaller scale in 2016.

Normally accidents result in some soul-searching and fixes. Not here. Rostekhnadzor (Federal Service for Ecological, Technological and Nuclear Supervision) even warned the company about the problems in the same plant in 2017 and again in 2018. As per reports, no steps were taken to address the concerns.


Permafrost is any ground that remains completely frozen for at least two straight years. Permafrost is common in high altitudes and poles. In fact, a significant portion of northern hemisphere sits on top of permafrost. It is not necessary that, permafrost regions are covered in snow. This is made of a mixture of soil, rocks, sand and held together by ice.

"A layer of soil on top of permafrost does not stay frozen all year. This layer, called the active layer, thaws during the warm summer months, and freezes again in the fall. In colder regions, the ground rarely thaws—even in the summer. There, the active layer is very thin—only 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 centimeters). In warmer permafrost regions, the active layer can be several meters thick" - NASA

What happens when permafrost thaws?

A block of thawing permafrost that fell into the ocean on Alaska’s Arctic Coast

i.e. when ice inside permafrost melts, leaving behind water and soil.

"Many northern villages are built on permafrost. When permafrost is frozen, it is harder than concrete. However, thawing permafrost can destroy houses, roads, and other infrastructure.

When permafrost is frozen, plant material in the soil—called organic carbon—cannot decompose, or rot away. As permafrost thaws, microbes begin decomposing this material. This process releases greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere.

When permafrost thaws, so do ancient bacteria and viruses in the ice and soil. These newly unfrozen microbes could make humans and animals very sick. Scientists have discovered microbes more than 400,000 years old in thawed permafrost." - NASA

Point to be noted here is - northern areas. This is not just Russia. There are many countries located there. If you look at Russian map, huge swaths of that country sit on top of permafrost. When temperature was fine it was good. However, with rising temperature, permafrost thaws are going to rise. Lot of infrastructure (many dating back to Soviet era) and for equipment to extract gas and oil are built on top of permafrost. When it thaws, that infrastructure is going to break.

Cities like - Norilsk, Vorkuta, Tiksi, Magadan, Igarka, Yakutsk, Anadyr, Novy Urengoy (and many other northern cities are going to suffer the damages. Now the question is, who will rebuild infrastructure in those large swaths? This is going to cost a lot and if no one is there to take care, then there will be more accidents, spills, and pollution. "according to one study, widescale permafrost thaws across Russia could cost more than $80 billion in infrastructural damages".

See what happened in Norilsk. Fuel tank was depressurized due to gradual caving of area of pile foundation and the fuel fell in to Bezymyanny stream, the Daldykan and Ambarnaya rivers (this one flows into Lake Pyasino - located some 20km from Norilsk). Same thing can be repeated anywhere in Russian high north.

"Currently, more than 700 people and about 300 pieces of equipment are involved in the elimination of emergencies; the Ministry of Emergencies aviation is connected. Booms are installed on the water to localize fuel stains. Petroleum products are collected from the surface of rivers, nearby lakes and tributaries, as well as from coastal soil" - Interfax 

Problem with diesel is, "petroleum products not only rapidly spread to the surface, but also quickly settle. On top of the film, the supply of oxygen from the air and sunlight shuts off, and below the fuel seeps into the ground, and several times faster than water…. one liter (diesel) is enough to deprive oxygen of 40 thousand liters of water or make half a ton of soil lifeless".


Permafrost thawing is happening all over the world; with rising temperature it is only going to increase. This will destabilize all infrastructure built on top of that - oil extraction facilities, home schools, roads, tracks, pipelines. This is going to change life for millions who live in Arctic.

"published findings, accepted for publication in Environmental Research Letters, a team of researchers (lead author is Dmitry Streletskiy) found that 20 percent of existing structures and 19 percent of other forms of infrastructure built on permafrost in Russia will be affected by climate change by 2050. And it will cost an estimated $16.7 billion to reconstruct the damaged buildings and $67.7 billion to replace other infrastructure, like roads and pipelines… these estimates don’t include repairs to fix minor damage — only irreparable changes that would require rebuilding from the ground up. And they only count existing infrastructure, not any that’s being planned or for which there is an anticipated need" - Arctic Today

This is just Russia, add all other countries which share Arctic and imagine the cost - just to fix the infrastructure (homes, schools and more). Since we cannot reduce global warming quick enough, governments in the area need to invest in securing infrastructure in high north. If they cannot, at least move polluting industries out of those areas.



1.      https://www.arctictoday.com/permafrost-thaw-in-russia-alone-could-cost-more-than-80-billion-in-damaged-infrastructure-report-says/

2.      https://static.life.ru/publications/2020/5/4/1341365149443.868.mp4

3.      https://life.ru/p/norilsk-ekologicheskaya-katastrofa

4.      https://www.interfax.ru/russia/713304

5.      https://climatekids.nasa.gov/permafrost/

6.      https://tass.com/emergencies/1164423


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