Curiously Polar

The Arctic and the Antarctic are privileged locations for observers interested in understanding how our world is shaped by the forces of nature and the workings of history. These areas have inspired countless humans to undertake epic expeditions of discovery and have witnessed both great triumphs and miserable defeats. As a planetary litmus paper it is at the poles we can detect the effects of natural oscillations and human activities on the global ecosystems.

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102 The Greatest Ecological Disaster Since Exxon Valdez


Watch this episode as a video.

In the beginning of June Russia has declared a state of emergency, just five days after a power plant fuel leak in its Arctic region caused 20,000 tonnes of diesel oil to escape into a local river, turning its surface crimson red. The Ambarnaya river, into which the oil has been discharged, is part of a network that flows into the environmentally sensitive Arctic Ocean. Built on permafrost that’s rapidly melting in a warming Arctic, the pillars that supported the plant’s fuel tank started to sink. Two days passed before local authorities learned of the spill from the Nadezhdinsky Metallurgical Plant. Even then, local officials only learned of the spill from social media. The plant is operated by a division of Nornickel, whose factories in the area have made the city of Norilsk one of the most heavily polluted places on Earth.

Open a map of the area

The surprisingly open media coverage of this incident gives an unprecedented insight into mining and drilling operations in the Russian Arctic and its connected threats for the fragile environment.

Environmentalists have said the river would be difficult to clean, given its shallow waters and remote location, as well as the magnitude of the spill. A World Wildlife Fund speaking to the AFP news agency described this as the second-largest known oil leak in modern Russia’s history in terms of volume.

The Russian chapter of activist group Greenpeace said damages to the Arctic waterways could be at least 6 billion rubles (over $76 million), and has compared the incident to Alaska’s 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. Its estimate does not include atmospheric damage due to greenhouse gases and soil pollution. The installed buoys will only help collect a small part of the pollution, leading us to say that nearly all the diesel fuel will remain in the environment. The clean-up effort could take between 5-10 years.


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 2020-06-17  22m