MOSCOW – The smell of diesel was so overpowering that it made Vasily Ryabinin dizzy. That meant he was getting close.
As an inspector from Russia’s environmental agency, Ryabinin went on his own to the Daldykan River in the Siberian city of Norilsk to see firsthand the aftermath of a major fuel leak at a metals plant.
He was also getting a glimpse of something else: possible warning signs for Russia’s plans to aggressively expand its industrial and military footholds across the country’s resource-rich Arctic – one of the world’s fastest-warming regions.
This surge in climate change in interior Russia – more than three times the global average – is throwing new risks in the way of President Vladimir Putin’s Far North agenda, among his top domestic initiatives. A key danger is piling more infrastructure atop rapidly thawing permafrost, land that remains frozen year after year.
As the permafrost destabilizes, so will the buildings, oil and gas pipelines, roads, railways, and military bases built on top of it, environmentalists and others warn.
This is what metals giant Norilsk Nickel claims happened in late May at its power station about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Melting permafrost shifted the foundation and ruptured a fuel reservoir, sending 21,000 tons of diesel into a fragile ecosystem of rivers and wetlands.
“The area should be declared an ecological disaster zone,” said Roman Desyatkin, who studies permafrost and is based in the Siberian city of Yakutsk.
Ryabinin, who grew up in Norilsk, saw photos of the Daldykan and Ambarnaya rivers stained red with fuel. He decided to check it out for himself. He said security from the plant initially barred him and his boss from visiting the site, despite their working for a governmental agency. They accessed it from the railroad tracks instead, walking more than a mile to a bridge that crossed the river.
“We started to smell it half a kilometer before the bridge,” Ryabinin said. “And then we saw just a flood of diesel in the river.”
Four days later, Putin went public about the spill. He berated both the regional governor and the head of the plant’s subsidiary in a videoconference that was broadcast on state television – a rare public chiding. Some also saw it as underscoring Kremlin worries about its broader strategies in the region.
The spill “was a signal to the political governance of Russia that the Arctic is not a piece of cake,” said Vladimir Chuprov, the project director for the Russian branch of Greenpeace. “The conditions are very harsh, and it’s very expensive.
“But it’s a very political and national pride story, where the Arctic is recognized as the personal story of President Putin,” he added.
The Kremlin published its 15-year Arctic ambitions in March, outlining a plan to develop new energy projects and create tens of thousands of jobs that will lure new people to the Far North.
The document on the “foundations of state policy in the Arctic to 2035,” signed by Putin, was an expression of Moscow’s underlying philosophy: Russia is feeling the effects of climate change, but maybe it could use it to its advantage. Among the goals is to use the Northern Sea Route to export oil and gas as the waters increasingly become free of ice.
This year marked the earliest eastbound shipment of liquefied natural gas from the Russian Arctic to China along the Northern Sea Route. The vessel left in May – more than a month earlier than in previous years. This summer has featured what is very likely the earliest opening of the Northern Sea Route since reliable satellite monitoring began in the late 1970s, with ice disappearing along the Siberian coast.
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On shore, however, the warming climate could be limiting options for Russian officials, who are considering legislation to offer free plots of land to encourage people to relocate to the Arctic.
Last month, a large crack emerged on a two-story residential building in Yakutsk, the world’s largest city built on permafrost and about 5,000 miles east of Moscow. The building was sinking with the permafrost’s thaw, forcing families to abandon their homes with no notice.
Major Russian energy producers such as Gazprom, Novatek and Norilsk Nickel could face a significant financial hit because of melting permafrost, according to a Morgan Stanley report obtained by the Russian business daily newspaper Vedomosti. The report noted that around 90% of Russia’s gas and diamonds, 30% of its oil, and all of its palladium reserves are in areas covered by permafrost.
For decades, scientists have been warning that as the world warms, the Arctic would warm faster than the rest of the globe.
Less snow and sea ice to reflect sunlight, and darker land cover to soak it up, helps speed a process known as Arctic amplification. Right now, it’s on overdrive.
The six months from January to June were more than 9 degrees (5 degrees Celsius) warmer than average over much of north-central Siberia, according to a new study.
This is having a host of ripple effects on the vast region and in fact the rest of the globe. Melting permafrost frees up huge quantities of planet-warming greenhouse gases that had been locked away in partially decomposed organic matter for thousands of years.
Vladimir Romanovsky, a climate researcher at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks who closely studies permafrost, said the Norilsk spill should be a wake-up call for political leaders in Russia and other Arctic nations on the consequences of thawing permafrost.
A 100.4-degree reading in the small community of Verkhoyansk, north of the Arctic Circle, on June 20 underscored the urgency of permafrost destabilization, he said. That reading may be certified as the hottest temperature recorded above the Arctic Circle.
Meanwhile, Arctic wildfire emissions, driven primarily by Siberian fires, hit a record level in July, according to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, a European Union science agency based in Reading, England. These blazes are harming permafrost indirectly by removing the cold, wet vegetation that covers the ground in these areas, such as peat.
“Scientists always were warning about this coming, but, of course, politicians and policymakers, they need to see something happen,” Romanovsky said. “Just warnings are not enough to take it seriously.”
He helped write a 2018 study that found that one-third of pan-Arctic infrastructure – and nearly 50% of oil and gas fields in the Russian Arctic – is located in areas where permafrost thaw could seriously damage infrastructure by 2050.
Romanovsky now says the study’s results may have been too conservative.
“It’s just physical law that in a warmer climate, the permafrost will thaw and create these critical situations in more and more regions,” he said.
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Ryabinin’s clandestine visit to the Daldykan River on May 29 was what he described as the “last straw.”
Norilsk was built by gulag prisoners in the Soviet Union, and the industrial city of around 175,000 people, for whom Norilsk Nickel is the main employer, is now notorious for its pollution. In 2016, a similar fuel spill also stained rivers red.
“If other plants have policies like Norilsk Nickel, this will be the end of the Arctic,” Ryabinin said.
As Ryabinin clashed with higher-ups at Russia’s state environmental agency over investigating the contamination, he quit his job there and decided to record a 45-minute video explaining how the diesel had spread much farther than anyone was acknowledging.
Ryabinin said speaking out means he and his family will have to move out of Norilsk. He has been joined by others raising alarms.
“We saw that the foundation of this reservoir went down, and the support also went down,” said Sergei Shakhmatov, the former deputy ecological minister for the Krasnoyarsk region and the director of the Russia Greens ecological party.
“We don’t know for sure yet whether this was because of the melting permafrost,” he added, “but we’re going to find out, and if this climatic factor is proved, then we’ll have to reconsider the entire strategy in the Arctic – and not only Russia but other countries like the United States and Canada.”
Norilsk Nickel, the world’s leading producer of nickel and palladium, was hit with a $2.1 billion fine for the damage. In a statement, the company said it is appealing the amount.
“At the same time, Nornickel reiterates its commitment to fully cover the cost of remediation of the environmental impact of this accident,” the statement said.
Less than two months after the 21,000-ton spill, Norilsk Nickel acknowledged a second, smaller leak inside the Arctic Circle – 45 tons of jet fuel escaping a pipeline in the Krasnoyarsk region. Incidents like that are common, environmentalists said, but usually don’t get the same publicity as the big one in Norilsk.
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The Kremlin’s 15-year plans include the development of scientific and engineering solutions to “prevent infrastructure damage from global climate change,” but they aren’t clearly defined. Greenpeace’s Chuprov said the costs of Putin’s full Arctic development plans may be too much for his government to swallow.
“All of these ideas reflected in all of these [Kremlin] papers are not workable,” he said.
Romanovsky, the climate researcher at the University of Alaska, said new buildings need to be constructed with melting permafrost in mind. One option is to elevate buildings to try to let cold air move under them and maintain more permafrost cover.
Chuprov is pessimistic that the Norilsk spill alone will cause Russia to make sweeping changes to its Arctic plans. He pointed to oil giant Rosneft, run by close Putin ally Igor Sechin, which recently asked for the government’s blessing to drill at least three sites that are partly located within the borders of a protected nature reserve in the Taymyr Peninsula, according to the Kommersant newspaper.
It’s now unclear whether Rosneft will get the go-ahead.
“All of these ecological issues were always secondary and never a priority,” said Shakhmatov, the director of the Russia Greens ecological party. “Now the ecological issues are on the agenda, and they’re in the top three.”
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Freedman reported from Washington.