Recent news from the Arctic tundra is a reminder that distant events may affect us here in unexpected and unpleasant ways.
At the end of May, approximately 23,000 U.S. tons of diesel fuel spilled from a power-plant reservoir in Norilsk, the northernmost city in Siberia, with nearly 17,000 tons flowing into a river, then to nearby Lake Pyasino. “It’s impossible to live in this mix of water and fuel, so of course, fish there died,” Vasily Yablokov, projects coordinator for the Russian branch of Greenpeace, said. “Now we can call this a dead lake.”
The spill is expected to reach the Arctic Ocean and from there, according to Rob Huebert, an Arctic specialist at the University of Calgary, it’s unclear where it will go, whether it will head toward Finland and Norway or the U.S. and Canada or just hug the coastline of Russia.
The oil spill won’t just kill sealife; it’ll have an adverse effect on land mammals and other wildlife and on the fragile Arctic biome — just as the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska — about 39,000 tons of oil — and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — at least 200,000 tons — wreaked havoc on the environment in those places.
“The cause of [the Siberian spill] is yet to be determined and is likely a combination of both climate change and infrastructure-related factors,” Dmitry Streletskiy, a professor at George Washington University, told Bloomberg News last week.
Likely, indeed. Temperatures have been breaking records in the Arctic — the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world — and melting polar snow and ice. Scientists have warned for years that thawing of once permanently frozen ground covering more than half of Russia is threatening the stability of buildings and pipelines.
And as the permafrost melts, long-buried greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane are released into the atmosphere.
“As you know, Russia is a northern country, and 70% of our territory is located in the north latitudes,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said during a news conference last week. “Some of our cities were built north of the Arctic Circle, on the permafrost. If it begins to thaw, you can imagine what consequences it would have. It’s very serious.”
Putin has largely been indifferent to the threat of climate change, though he did sign the Paris climate accord last year. His view may intensify now.
On top of the oil spill, Siberia’s abnormally warm weather has led to an early wildfire season, with fires up to 10 times as large as they were this time last year. Last year’s fires burned through 7 million acres and sent smoke drifting as far as the United States and Canada.
It’s a small world after all.
Some have tried to minimize the effect of climate change, but with increased greenhouse gases leading to rising temperatures, increased energy in the atmosphere and the rise of sea water, it’s likely to be more devastating, in the long run, than even the current pandemic.
In North Carolina and elsewhere, attempts have been made to move to forms of energy that are renewable and less hazardous to our health than fossil fuels. It would be an exaggeration to say that all the kinks have been worked out of renewable energy. Yet, despite claims from some quarters, we have nothing to fear from a wind spill.
The smart money would have opted for alternative energy years ago, but Americans seem to have increasing difficulty meeting crises with effective solutions.