Thawing Permafrost is the Reason of Oil Spill in Russia? Know how? - Seeker's Thoughts

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Thawing Permafrost is the Reason of Oil Spill in Russia? Know how?

In more ‘normal’ times, powerful of blood-red river eater in Russia’s Siberia would have occupied headlines for at least a few days. In this time of struggle against systemic racism amidst a global pandemic, such news, however important, quickly got pushed to the back burner.

The spill started on May 29, 2020, when an oil tank collapsed near the city of Norilsk, most likely due to the thawing permafrost in the area.

Since then, some 21,000 tons of oil leaked into the nearby Ambarnaya River, polluting the area of about 180,000m2.

The oil spill originated from the power station facilities of Norilsk Nickel, a company known for its vast mining operations in the Russian Arctic and for being the biggest producer of refined nickel and palladium in the world.

The diesel oil storage tanker lost integrity and spilled on the nearby road, flowing into the river, polluting vast areas of ground on its way.

The cost of clean-up operations are estimated to be between 6 and 10 billion rubles, and the government expects environmental restoration in the region to take 10 years. As of  June 5,  emergency services reported the spill is ‘contained’, as resources are being mobilized to the area to assist in the further clean-up.

Thawing of permafrost

While global warming is upping temperatures around the world, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else and faster than it has in the past 3 million years. And when surface air temperatures rise, below-ground temperatures do, too, thawing permafrost along the way.

Scientists estimate there is now 10 percent less frozen ground in the northern hemisphere than there was in the early 1900 s.

One recent study suggests that with every additional 8°F (1°C) of warming, an additional 1.5 million square miles of permafrost could eventually disappear. Even if we meet the climate targets laid out during the 2015 Paris climate talks, the world may still lose more than 2.5 million square miles of frozen turf.

Diseases and viruses: it can also trap and preserve ancient microbes.

It’s believed that some bacteria and viruses can lie dormant for thousands of years in permafrost’s cold, dark confines before waking up when the ground warms.

A 2016 anthrax outbreak in Siberia, linked to a decades-old reindeer carcass infected with the bacteria and exposed by thawed permafrost, demonstrated the potential threat.

In 2015, researchers in Siberia uncovered the Mollivirus sibericum, a 30,000-year-old behemoth of a virus that succeeded in infecting a rather defenseless amoeba in a lab experiment.

About a decade earlier, scientists discovered the first Mimivirus, a 1,200-gene specimen measuring twice the width of traditional viruses, buried beneath layers of melting frost in the Russian tundra. (For comparison, HIV has just nine genes.)

This can be the case with other diseases, such as smallpox and the 1918 Spanish flu—known to exist in the frozen tundra, in the mass graves of those killed by the disease.

Human contact with zombie pathogens may risk new pandemics if there is unabated mining of metals from permafrost.

What is permafrost?

Permafrost is any type of ground, from soil to sediment to rock—that has been frozen continuously for a minimum of two years and as many as hundreds of thousands of years. It can extend down beneath the earth’s surface from a few feet to more than a mile—covering entire regions, such as the Arctic tundra, or a single, isolated spot, such as a mountaintop of alpine permafrost.

Formation of permafrost

The water that is trapped in sediment, soil, and the cracks, crevices, and pores of rocks turns to ice when ground temperatures drop below 32°F (0°C).

When the earth remains frozen for at least two consecutive years, it’s called permafrost. If the ground freezes and thaws every year, it’s considered “seasonally frozen.”

About a quarter of the entire northern hemisphere is permafrost, where the ground is frozen year-round.

It’s widespread in the Arctic regions of Siberia, Canada, Greenland, and Alaska—where nearly 85 percent of the state sits atop a layer of permafrost.

It’s also found on the Tibetan plateau, in high-altitude regions like the Rocky Mountains, and on the floor of the Arctic Ocean as undersea permafrost.

In the southern hemisphere, where there’s far less ground to freeze, permafrost is found in mountainous regions such as the South American Andes and New Zealand’s Southern Alps, as well as below Antarctica.

Impact of permafrost thawing
Huge Carbon Sink: An estimated 1,400 gigatons of carbon are frozen in Arctic permafrost, making it one of the world’s largest carbon sinks.

That’s about four times more than humans have emitted since the Industrial Revolution, and nearly twice as much as is currently contained in the atmosphere.

According to a recent report,2 degrees Celsius increase in temperature, expected by the end of the century will result in a loss of about 40 percent of the world’s permafrost by 2100.

Loss of trapped Greenhouse gases: Packed with many thousands of years of life, from human bodies to the bodies of woolly mammoths, permafrost is one of the earth’s great stores of global warming gases.

Indeed, permafrost in the Arctic alone is estimated to hold nearly twice as much carbon as exists in the atmosphere now, as well as a sizable amount of methane—a powerful greenhouse gas that traps more than 80 times more heat on the planet than carbon does.

Toxins: A recent study found that Arctic permafrost is a massive repository of natural mercury, a potent neurotoxin. Indeed, it’s estimated that some 15 million gallons of mercury—or nearly twice the amount of mercury found in the ocean, atmosphere, and all other soils combined—are locked in permafrost soils.

Once released, however, that mercury can spread through water or air into ecosystems and potentially even food supplies.

Crumbling Infrastructure: About 35 million people live in a permafrost zone, in towns and cities built on top of what was once considered permanently frozen ground.

But as that solid ground softens, the infrastructure these communities rely on grows increasingly unstable.

Eg: Recent Russian Norilsk diesel oil spill is an ongoing industrial disaster, which occurred at a thermal power plant that was supported on permafrost, crumbled.

Altered Landscape: Thawing permafrost alters natural ecosystems in many ways as well. It can create thermokarsts, areas of sagging ground, and shallow ponds that are often characterized by “drunken forests” of askew trees.

It can make soil—once frozen solid—more vulnerable to landslides and erosion, particularly along coasts.

As this softened soil erodes, it can introduce new sediment to waterways, which may alter the flow of rivers and streams, degrade water quality (including by the introduction of carbon), and impact aquatic wildlife.

Inadequate response plans
The oil spill response plan for the facility did not account for the possibility of escaped diesel reaching the waterways despite their proximity. It is not the first time that oil spill response plans are deemed inadequate in the Arctic context, as previously Prirazlomnaya platform’s plan was under fire from environmental organizations.

Clean-up of the current oil spill is ongoing but is hampered by the lack of road infrastructure in the area and difficulty in disposing of the oil recovered, something that should have been considered in the plan.

 While initial suggestions included burning, this method is associated with high levels of toxic air pollution, and it is still unclear how the collected oil will be utilized.

Clean-up of oil in cold environments is particularly challenging due to low biodegradation rates, evidenced by the long-lasting effects of the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

A further question arises about the inclusion of the increasingly damaging effects of permafrost thaw in the current planning framework. A week after the incident, Russia’s chief prosecutor ordered the inspection of all potentially dangerous objects at risk from permafrost thaw.

Long overdue attention
It is difficult to ascertain how feasible this exercise is and how long it would take considering that a large share of Russian oil and gas infrastructure is located in permafrost areas. This is not a purely Russian problem – 

 In Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, warming is already creating destruction and safety risks.

If there is a positive to be found in this event, it must be the long-overdue attention to the effects of climate change in the Arctic from Russia’s highest political circles. The damaging effects of permafrost thaw on Russian Arctic infrastructure were not unexpected.

The Government’s climate change adaptation plan, adopted at the end of 2019, specifically lists the risks. However, Russia’s engagement with climate change -mitigation has been questionable, with the same adaptation plan listing the positive opportunities of warming, such as easier access to the Arctic waters due to melting ice.

By reducing our carbon footprint, investing in energy-efficient products, and supporting climate-friendly businesses, legislation, and policies, we can help preserve the world’s permafrost and avert a vicious cycle of an ever-warming planet.

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