A 20,000-tonne oil spill is contaminating the Arctic – it could take decades to clean up

When a tank for storage located in Norilsk in northern Russia collapsed in late May, 20,000 tonnes of diesel fuel escaped into the environment. Strong winds blew the oil to travel further than 12 miles away from the point of origin, contaminating the nearby lakes, rivers, and soil.

The disaster may not have gotten the attention it deserved since it happened amid an outbreak of a global pandemic, and only weeks after the passing of the black activist George Floyd, which sparked an upsurge of Black Lives Matter protests. However, the spill was an enormous disaster with grave consequences.

As experts on Arctic ecosystems, we’re concerned about the long-term effects of this diesel pollution in these pristine ecosystems in which harsh, cold conditions can mean life is sporadic. While bacteria have been well-known for their ability to “clean up” oil spills all over the world, in the Arctic, the low number and slow rate of activity could see diesel-related products linger for years, even years.

Diesel spills differ from other spills of oil.

Major oil spills like the one at Exxon Valdez in 1989 or Deepwater Horizon in 2010 typically contain a thick, gloopy oil that lies on the water’s surface. For spills like these, the best way to clean up spills is widely known. However, the most recent Norilsk spill was caused by smaller, less gloopy diesel oil in freshwater, which made cleanup difficult.

Diesel – in dark red – spreads along the Ambarnaya River near Norilsk. Source: European Space Agency

Diesel oil is made up of between 2,000 and 4,000 kinds of hydrocarbons (the naturally found in fossil fuels) that break into various forms within the environment. The majority of the time, 50 percent or more could evaporate in a matter of hours or days, damaging the environment and creating respiratory issues for the people living nearby.

Other, more durable chemicals are able to bind with microorganisms and algae in the sink and water and form an odorous sludge that starts in the bed of the lake or river. This creates the impression the contamination is gone and no longer poses a threat. However, this sludge may persist for months or even years.

How do different parts of the ecosystem react

At the base of the food chain of the rivers and lakes are tiny algae and plants that require sunlight for energy production through photosynthesis. When oil first gets into the water, it floats at the surface and then forms an oily sun block, consequently, these organisms quickly diminish in size. Zooplankton (tiny creatures) that consume them eventually die out.

As time passes, wind and currents aid in dispersing the oily layer. However, some of the oil will be able to sink to the bottom when predators have diminished algae will be back in larger quantities.

The soils of the Russian Arctic contain fewer organisms than other areas of the world, due to the harsh, cold conditions that mean the ground is usually frozen, water that is liquid rare and there are not many nutrients to be found. However, they are full of life and have been severely affected by the oil leaks.

In the beginning, it covers dirt particles and reduces their capacity to absorb nutrients and water negatively impacting soil organisms since they can’t access the food or water they require to survive. The oily coating can persist for a long time as it is extremely difficult to remove, and so it is often necessary for the soil to be removed physically.

As as of July 6, Nornickel, the mining firm that operated the tank for storage, announced that it has disposed of 185,000 tonnes of soil that was contaminated (about 14 times as heavy as the Brooklyn Bridge). The soil will be stored on the site and will be “cleaned” by certified contaminant experts by the end of September.

It is expected that the “cleaned” soil will then likely return to its original location. In addition, thirteen Olympic swimming pools worth of fuel-contaminated waters are being pumped out of the river to an adjacent industrial site, where toxic chemicals are separated. this “clean” water will likely be return into the river.

This is better than nothing, however the toxins are likely to remain in soil and water. Over time, the toxins get accumulated in the food chain, beginning with microorganisms and eventually leading to health problems for larger organisms like birds and fish.

A few of these tiny creatures that are largely invisibly present found in the soil as well as freshwater could theoretically be a part of the solution. Diesel is a source of carbon (which is vital to every living thing) and a number of microorganisms actually thrive in fuel spills, helping eliminate contaminants by making use of carbon as food source.

Typically, the cold Arctic conditions inhibit biodegradation and microbial activity. This Arctic temperatures could speed up this process, initially allowing bacteria that degrade oil to grow and reproduce, then consume these pollutants more quickly than normal. However, due to the region’s absence of water and nitrogen as well as Phosphorus that is required to grow, even a heatwave could only benefit microorganisms by bringing them more nutrients.

It is likely to happen again.

Temperatures in May 2020 compared with the average over time. Norilsk is in the dark red region. Copernicus Climate Data Source, CC BY-SA

Russian Authorities have blamed this collapse on condition of the tank and have demanded Nornickel to pay ” voluntary compensation” to compensate for the environmental damage. Nornickel claims it is not negligent and says that the fuel tank was damaged because of the rapid melting of permafrost.

This spring, Siberia experienced temperatures that were 10 degrees higher than the average. With permafrost covering the majority of Russia and Siberia, the region is particularly vulnerable to climate change. In fact, 45% of the oil and gas extraction fields located in regions in the Russian Arctic are in danger of instability in the infrastructure due to the melting of permafrost.

Without stricter regulations to enhance the infrastructure, more spills could occur, particularly given the speed with which permafrost melts in these areas, which is causing unstable ground.

Although nature, with her oil-degrading communities of microbial life, could aid in cleaning up our mess we shouldn’t rely on an invisible force that we don’t know how to solve a larger human-created issue. What is the best way to ensure that a world which is on the verge of destruction ever completely recover?


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