The Other Crisis: Present and Future Environmental Strains in the Arctic

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Marc Lanteigne

As the Arctic, like much of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, prepares for the summer months, the COVID-19 pandemic remains by far the region’s most pressing concern. The records of far northern governments in flattening the infection curve and reopening their economies have so far been mixed. For example, Iceland began opening its borders earlier this month for travellers from within the European Schengen region, however the government of Sweden is now facing domestic and international scrutiny for its controversial handling of the outbreak within that country. Other parts of the Arctic, including Greenland and Nunavut, benefited from isolation and swift containment measures, and currently remain free of the virus.

However, over the past few weeks, evidence of serious concerns has appeared in the far north related to the perpetual environmental stresses caused by climate change, as well as via other anthropogenic means. The coronavirus has not placed a hold on the ever-growing list of threats to the Arctic environment, and indeed the first half of this year has highlighted that point in several ways.

The current heat wave in Siberia, normally known as one of the coldest places on the planet, has been mainly responsible for re-focusing attention on altered weather patterns in the Arctic in recent months. Last week, the city of Verkhoyansk (Верхоянск) in north-central Russia, long known for its record-setting winter temperatures, (including a figure of -67.7ºC measured in the late nineteenth century), confirmed a daytime temperature of 38ºC, which may have broken another record, namely the warmest temperature ever observed north of the Arctic Circle.

The ‘Pole of Cold’ (Полюс холода) monument in Verkhoyansk, Russia [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
That event took place in the wake of high temperatures throughout the Siberian region since the start of spring, producing wildfires, including so-called ‘zombie fires’ (зомби-пожаров) caused by embers underneath the soil which can re-ignite conflagrations long after they have been extinguished. The fires placed further strains on the permafrost, which is already facing attrition due to previous climate trends, in much of the Russian Arctic. Collapsing permafrost, as well as poor infrastructure and safety protocols, had previously been blamed for the calamitous oil spill near the Siberian city of Norilsk (Норильск) in late May this year, an accident which is still in the process of being contained.

Arctic forest fires in Siberia and elsewhere have been placed under greater scrutiny by environmentalists in recent years, out of concerns they are contributing to a feedback loop by discharging  greater amounts of carbon dioxide into the air which can then contribute to further temperature hikes and higher pollution levels, as well as affecting the Arctic-Atlantic jet stream. Higher than normal temperatures have also been experienced in other Arctic regions, including in Canada, (with wildfires breaking out in northern Québec this month), as well as in Finland and Sweden.

Despite the connections between fossil fuel burning and warming temperatures in the Arctic and elsewhere, some Arctic governments are pushing ahead with oil and gas development. Despite the negative public reaction to the Norilsk incident, as well as depressed oil and gas prices caused by the pandemic-induced global recession, Moscow continues to advocate for oil and gas projects in its Arctic lands, as well as expanded use of the Northern Sea Route as more of the Arctic Ocean becomes free of ice during summer months.

Other actors have also not been dissuaded by diminished fuel requirements in planning new energy initiatives in their Arctic zones. The US government, which continues to deny the existence of climate change, announced its interest this month in designating new areas of Alaska as being eligible for oil and gas drilling, (while at the same time easing restrictions on the hunting of Alaskan wildlife).

Oslo is facing criticism from green advocacy groups this month after it announced the licensing of new exploration blocks off the northern Norwegian coast, including in the Barents Sea, while the country’s Johan Sverdrup oil field has reportedly been boosting exports after Oslo agreed to abide by a plan set out by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting States (OPEC) and its supporters to reduce production. The Norwegian government has also been dealing with a series of lawsuits from environmental organisations, including the local chapter of Greenpeace, which calls for a complete halt to further fossil fuel extraction in the Arctic on constitutional grounds, and the case is expected to be heard by the country’s Supreme Court in November this year.

Another example of a regional environmental threat, as well as an uncomfortable historical reminder, appeared during this month as slightly elevated levels of radioactive isotopes, possibly emanating from damage to a Russian nuclear power facility, began to be detected in Northern Europe. Norwegian authorities reported that tiny traces of the specific isotope iodine-131 (131I) had been monitored, earlier this June, at radiation testing stations near Kirkenes on the Russian border, and on Svalbard. The exact source of the radiation has yet to be determined, but studies suggested that its origin was likely Western Russia, despite assurances from Russia’s nuclear authority, Rosenergoatom (Росэнергоатом) that both of its nuclear plants in the region, one near the Arctic city of Murmansk and the other close to St Petersburg, had experienced no abnormalities or breakdowns.

[Photo by Emanuel Haas via Unsplash]
This incident has thrown a spotlight on another contentious aspect of Russia’s Arctic development policies, namely the role of nuclear energy. As a policy brief published this month by the London-based European Policy Network (EPN) explained [pdf], the high concentration of nuclear materials in the Russian Arctic, contained within power stations, dumping sites, weapons and vehicles, including icebreakers and submarines, was growing in intensity. The report stated that, observing current trends, there is the possibility that the Russian Arctic could contain the most heavily nuclearised waters in the world fifteen years from now.

As the brief described, the combination of the environmental fragility of the Arctic under climate change conditions, and the poor track record of the Russian government, and previously, the Soviet regime, of safe nuclear power maintenance, should be cause for alarm. To cite a recent example, in August 2019, an incident took place at the Nyonoksa (Нёнокса) test range on the White Sea, which was later described by US authorities as an explosion and radiation release, causing five fatalities, during a failed attempt to recover a misfired nuclear missile. The EPN paper concluded the increased amounts of nuclear fuel in, on, and near Russian Arctic waters, including via the floating mobile nuclear power station Akademik Lomonosov (Академик Ломоносов), which came online in May 2020, and planned new nuclear powered icebreaking vessels, greatly raised the chances of a catastrophic accident scenario.

In short, the Arctic is facing another difficult summer of environmental challenges, added to the ongoing uncertainty about the present course of the coronavirus. The region is also continuing to prove that climate change, as well as certain human actions, in the far north can have unpredictable outcomes reaching far beyond the Arctic itself.

Addendum: It was reported on 28 June that a wastewater discharge took place near the same Norilsk Nickel facilities where the oil spill had occurred a month previous.