Spilling Over

The unexpected link between the Russian oil spill and climate change explained

Melting permafrost is a major problem.

On May 29, the Ambarnaya and Daldykan rivers began turning a burning red as an estimated 21,000 tons of diesel spilled from an oil tank in Norilsk, Russia, and gushed into the waterways. This Article Circle spill can still be seen from space.

The diesel fuel was dyed red, a practice in Russia that means the oil is to be used to heat buildings — and as a result, the rivers and their tributaries ran red, too.

Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to declare a state of emergency on Friday, June 5 and has put the blame on the billionaire Russian oil tycoon, Norilsk Nickel, who owns the plant, and in turn, the broken tank.

Considering the science, blaming Nickel was inevitable — but, likely, in a way that Putin could not have anticipated. According to the Associated Press, Nickel's plants have made "Norilsk one of the most heavily polluted places on the planet." The accident was triggered by melting permafrost — the result of rising global temperatures, which are spurred in part by burning diesel fuel. Nickels' plants are cannibalizing themselves.

Nickels' company, Nornickel, said in a statement that thawing soil caused damage to the oil tank's support system, explaining that the accident "was caused by a sudden sinking of supporting posts in the basement of the storage tank."

This is the first accident at such a scale in the Arctic Circle, according to Greenpeace Russia.

The spill demonstrates a potentially devastating side-effect of climate change: As permafrost thaws, the structures that were built on the once-stable, frozen soil are in danger of collapse.

Permafrost is just what it sounds like: permanently frozen ground, which stays solid for at least two years. In the northern hemisphere, it normally exists across Siberia, Canada, Greenland, and Alaska.

But rising global temperatures are causing permafrost to melt much faster than researchers previously anticipated. That means buildings and other structures that were supposed to be stable, built on the once-frozen ground, are in greater danger of collapse.

About 35 million people live on top of permafrost, according to a 2017 study. In areas like northern Russia, buildings have already begun to crumble.

When frost unfreezes — Besides supporting buildings and structures, like oil tanks, permafrost plays an important role in slowing the rate of climate change.

Permafrost stashes away carbon dioxide — 1,500 billion tons of it — holding back the atmosphere-warming gas contributing to climate change. The amount of carbon stored in permafrost is nearly double the amount in the atmosphere. As temperatures warm, more carbon dioxide can escape.

Among the major contributors to climate change is the burning of fossil fuels, like the diesel fuel that spilled.

Satellite image of oil spill measures near the Russian Arctic city of Norislk, Russia. This was taken on June 6.

Scientists are concerned that thawing permafrost, which unleashed carbon and spurs further warming and thawing, could "initiate a runaway process of global warming," according to Columbia University's Earth Institute.

And it's not just carbon dioxide: Viruses can survive in permafrost, so thawing can potentially reintroduce ancient threats to human health. In 2014, French researchers in Siberia uncovered a 30,000-year-old virus that infects amoebas. In 2016, melting permafrost released anthrax spores, killing a 12-year-old boy. The outbreak also hospitalized twenty people and killed more than 2,300 reindeer, BBC reports.

Scientists fear what "climate change will unlock in the permafrost," The Atlantic reports. There is also some question as to whether viruses we've already encountered could reemerge from their now-frozen victims: In 2007, researchers sequenced the virus's RNA from a frozen body. (The good news is that scientists haven't yet been able to revive viruses retrieved from bodies found in permafrost.)

The future of this Arctic spill — According to Nornickel, cleanup is underway. But as of June 3, just 262 tons of oil had been cleaned up.

The United States has offered help in the cleanup efforts, too, as

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Twitter that the US "stands ready to assist Russia to mitigate this environmental disaster and offer our technical expertise."

Looking toward the future, Nornickel says it will explore the possibility that this could happen again as permafrost continues to melt:

"Currently, NTEC teams are conducting an inspection of emergency diesel fuel storage facilities, with special attention paid to assessing the risks of sinking soil under hazardous objects installed in permafrost."

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