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The Arctic: the ‘black swan’ of the world environmental disaster

The Arctic region is planet’s climate generating hub, and any shifts of the situation within the region are important indicator of global climate changes. During the last decades, serious transformations have been observed here. Increasing flows of warm air from low latitudes have led to the rise in surface air temperature. And the change of temperature has resulted in significant decrease in the ice area and its thickness.

As regards temperature patterns, the research data shows that the temperature in the Arctic region increases faster than in the rest of the world. Such tendency can lead to the extinction of a number of species of flora and fauna in the future. The consequences of global warming also endanger the survival of indigenous people of the Arctic -€“ these people are heavily dependent on plant and animal life of the region they inhabit.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) highlights several major environmental problems of the Arctic region which are a subject of serious concern: the melting of permafrost, caused by climate change; the contamination of the water of North seas with fossil fuels and chemicals originating from the maritime transport; the reduction of the population of Arctic animals, caused by changes affecting their living area.

The question of the protection of this specific -€“ in terms of the ecology -€“ region was rised back at the end of the 1990s. An international meeting of eight Arctic states was held in Finnish city of Rovaniemi, they were: the USSR, the US, Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Norway, Finland and Sweden. Two years after, these countries adopted Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, and five more years later the Arctic Council was established on permanent basis. The Council sets a goal to implement the programms of comprehensive sustainable development.

This year, in accordance with the principle of rotation, Russia has assumed the role of chair of the Arctic Council for a two-year period. It means that this country will be responsible for the implementation of sustainable development programms for the Arctic region and for the addressing environmental issues till 2023. These problems are high on the agenda.

However, environmental issues have never been a top priority for Russia. The Kremlin carries more ambitious plans regarding the Arctic. Russia, the coastline of which accounts for more than a half of the Arctic Ocean coastline, is determined to be a key player in the region.

Since the Soviet Union’s existence and up to the present day, Russia has been actively developing Arctic oil and gas fields. And quite often such an activity leads to large scale accidents. As a general rule, Russian authorities take every effort to conceal the fact of such incidents, the scale of the damage to the environment of the region and threats associated with them. In 2019 only, more than 10,500 out of 17,000 accidents that occurred in Russia’€™s fuel-energy sector involved oil facilities, the majority of which are located in the High North, Jamestown Foundation reports. On average, an accident took place every thirty minutes.

In May, in the Komi Republic in Russia Greenpeace found an abandoned oil storage facility in a village called Shchelyayur in the Izhma region. Oil tanks were found leaking just 50-70 meters from the waters of the Pechora River that flows into the Arctic Ocean.

At that time one more ecological disaster took place in the northern Komi Republic (which borders the Nenets Autonomous District) -€“ a large oil spill. According to the press service of the Lukoil-Komi, responsible for the incident, about four tons of oil products were spilled in a water. However, the affected area stretches for 12,700 square kilometers. The representatives of non-governmental and environmental organizations are sure that the volume of spilled fossils has reached 90 tons. Local environmental activists accuse Lukoil and local authorities of concealing the information about the spill, claiming that the incident may have occurred not on May 11, but as early as in March, and no actions were taken for all this time to address the consequences of the disaster. The authorities’€™ response to the incident implied the intention to conceal its scale and the concequences. As a result, a part of the Kolva River has faced a heavy contamination with oil from the Osha deposit. In addition, the Usa and Pechora Rivers were affected as well, said Aleksander Sladkoshtiev, the deputy director of the non-governmental organization Committee of Salvation of Pechora. Seriousness of the situation was confirmed by the satellite images taken by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The represented data proved the first signs of oil spill dated back to March.

Another oil spill occurred on May 14 on the territory of the Yamal Nenets Autonomous Okrug (YNAO). Russian media outlets reported on 3,000 cubic meters of spilled oil. No details regarding the reasons and the investigation were provided. The incident resulted in massive contamination of the local environment.

In late April, a part of the Ob River on the Yamal peninsula was contaminated with more than 56 tons of spilled oil products. According to the local eco-activists, several companies were guilty of the incident, including SiburTumenGas. However, the authorities responsible for the investigation and for the environmental protection (Rosprirodnadzor) were silent.

A still unexplained recent incident occurred in September-€“October 2020, in the Avacha Bay, Kamchatka Peninsula, the Russian Far East. At that time surfers, when contacted the water, complained on the eye pain, blurred vision and the symptoms of intoxication. A record number (95%!) of marine inhabitants of Avacha Bay were found dead along the coastline. The Russian officials claimed that the incident had been caused by such natural phenomenon as the red tides, or the algae bloom. However, the reports stated that collected seawater samples had traces of dangerous phenol which means that the contamination could be linked to a large military polygon built in 90s that stockpiles up to 300 tons of toxic chemicals, periodically leaking into soil and ground water. Greenpeace was highly doubtful about the conclusions drawn by authorities saying that such disaster resulted in the mass death of marine inhabitants could have not been caused by any natural phenomenon including the algae bloom. The real source of the disaster remains unknown.

On May 29, 2020, a huge diesel spill in the Arctic town of Dudinka, in Krasnoyarsk Krai, on the territory owned by Russian mining giant Nornickel happened. The incident was named the largest industrial spill in the Arctic region. The fuel contaminated Ambarnaya River, the Arctic Lake Pyasino and the Kara Sea. When diesel infiltrated the river, the water in it turned red -€“ the fact which was proved by satellite images. Nornickel was notably involved in two another massive ecological disasters last year which took place in the High North region of Norilsk with a few weeks difference -€“ on June 29 and July 7 respectively.

Ambarnaya River turned red of leaked diesel, May 2020

So, we may observe a clear trend of Russian authorities to conceal the real consequences of the disasters to pay less compensation for restoration works and the damage caused to phishing industry, the health of local citizens and to avoid attention of international environmental organizations. Therefore, it is unlikely that the Russian leadership will fully manage to implement the tasks assigned to it as the head of the Arctic Council.

Taking into account the fact that the Arctic is one of the most fragile and at the same time important ecosystems on the planet, the growing environmental problems in this region are likely to transform from regional to global. Perhaps Russia, as a country that conducts active economic activities amid extremely high vulnerability of nature, during its chairmanship in the Arctic Council should pay more attention to the problems of environmental safety, environmental protection and prevention of man-made disasters. Moreover, it is Russia that often is the source of such disasters.

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