By James Pallister
Industrial activity is already changing the polar landscape — and the consequences may be devastating.
Reindeer thrive on the Yamal Peninsula. This piece of Siberian tundra is approximately the size of Wales and takes its name for the local dialect’s phrase for ‘end of the earth’. It’s also home to the world’s largest reindeer herd.
Approximately 600,000 of the beasts are estimated to live here, supporting and managed by the Nenets indigenous herders. That’s good news for the reindeer, a species whose number has declined 30 per cent over the last 15 years.
Of late, they’ve had to deal with some new neighbours. As well as being a haven for reindeer, the Yamal is home to some 95 per cent of Russia’s gas and oil fields.
The expected yields from these resources has made them integral to Russia’s ambitious new energy policy — one that seeks to ensure Russian energy security within the next two decades, and to meet demand from resource-hungry export markets in Western Europe, via pipelines through Belarus and Poland.
Work here has stepped up in recent years, as the infrastructure is laid down for 11 gas and 15 oil, gas and condensate fields. Production is forecast to rocket from 75 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas in 2015 to 360bcm by 2030.
Gazprom’s name for the associated infrastructure and building project, ‘Yamal Megaproject’, suggests something of its scale. Some 15,000 kilometres of pipelines will cut across the Yamal, punctuated by 27 compressor stations. The world’s most northerly railway line, the 525km Obskaya– Bovanenkovo line, was opened in 2011 to help facilitate expansion of the oil and gas fields.
And just as railways and pipelines ease the transportation of gas and oil, they make life difficult for the Nenets. The new construction affects the Nenets’ annual migration, interrupting routes that have served them for over 1,000 years as they follow the reindeer in search of breeding grounds and new pasturelands.
In 2011, NASA scientist and IPCC climate change report contributor Nancy Maynard worked with Saami reindeer herder Inger Marie Eira, mapping changes to the landscape against aerial images taken in the 1970s. “Now they have to wind their way through construction, pipelines and spilled oil,” says Maynard, speaking from a summer cabin in rural Maine. “The Yamal is now totally crisscrossed with infrastructure from oil and gas”.
And reindeer, it turns out, don’t like straight lines. Not only do pipelines and railways disrupt their normal migratory routes, the new infrastructure can spook them, says Maynard, making the beasts reluctant to trot alongside these man-made linear oddities. The reindeer take fright at power lines, perceiving the emitted ultraviolet frequencies as a bright flashing light. Milder winters mean what were ice paths are now rivers that need to be forded: gradually, they are being cut off from their old stomping grounds. This is what the naturalists call habitat fragmentation.
Another effect of climate change is the increase in winter precipitation. A once-rare event, the incidence of rain-on-snow has risen in recent years. This creates serious problems for reindeer, as layers of frozen rain atop the snow prevents them from accessing the lichen they typically feed upon. “They get locked out of their pasture, and the fodder underneath,” says Maynard. “The entire herd can starve.”
Maynard worries that the Yamal herders will soon face similar problems associated with changing weather and diets that the Inuit of Alaska are now facing. Maynard explains that thawing permafrost is causing frequent failure of traditional ice cellars, carved in the frost to preserve fish and meat. The result is spoilt food, sickness and food poverty.The Inuit now also have to deal with increased exposure to mercury, thanks to the 100 tonnes of the heavy metal that lands in the Arctic Ocean each year, airborne from industrial polluters further south. This builds up in the food chain, with large mammals, humans included, receiving the highest doses.
Spurred on by these factors, and increased difficulty in hunting, Inuit have been consuming more processed food, which then causes health problems, says Maynard. “[Alaskan Inuit] are having the increased health issues you would expect with processed food, whether its diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dental problems or terrible obesity problems.”
“Indigenous people have a good knowledge of how to live in harmony with changing nature. Traditional lifestyles will survive. They expect change.”
For Oleg Anisimov, of the Russian State Hydrological Institute, the prevailing discourse around indigenous people’s future errs on the overly negative. He argues that often people ignore the opportunities that proximity to economic activity can bring. “Indigenous people have a good knowledge of how to live in harmony with changing nature. Traditional lifestyles will survive. They expect change,” he says, speaking from St Petersburg.
“Gazprom or other oil companies can disturb the life of indigenous peoples in the Russian Arctic, on one hand” says Anisimov, co-ordinating lead author of the IPCC report (Volume II, Chapter 28 – Polar Regions). “On the other, they open new possibilities for these youngsters who do not want to follow their father’s lifestyle on the land but who still want to live in the region. Now this is possible. Indigenous communities very quickly learn how to take advantage of these opportunities.”
And Anisimov believes there are upsides to global warming too – at least for some people. Chinese and central Asian immigrants are clamouring to work in Siberia, spurred on by opportunity and warmer temperatures. Winter fuel costs come down too, and research by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) suggests that the changing hydrologies – a shorter ice period and increased water runoff in winter, when energy demand is at its highest – will benefit hydroelectric power generation.
The real problems for Anisimov, are for the people dwelling in what he calls the ‘Urban Arctic’, which makes up the bulk of the Russian Arctic’s population. Despite occupying similar latitudes, those with city-bound lifestyles invariably lack the resilience and high adaptive capacity of their nomadic cousins.
Thawing permafrost has already had a disruptive effect on roads, railways and buildings in the northern cities of Yakutsk and Norilsk. Many of these cities are built alongside rivers, and ice jams and the resultant floods of the type that devastated the city of Lensk in 2001 look like they will be increasingly common and more severe in the coming years, says Anisimov.
One of the consequences of melting permafrost in the Arctic is thermokarst, marshy hollows formed when permafrost thaws. This summer, a helicopter pilot flying over the Yamal spotted an enormous 60-metre hole in the tundra, and after hypotheses of meteorites,UFOs and missile strikes, the consensus was that the breakdown of once-frozen organic matter had created an enormous bubble of methane, that blew out a hole in a landscape weakened by thermokarst.
Other nasty surprises thrown up by thawing permafrost come in the form of long-dormant biological hazards. Russian scientists Boris A. Revich and Marina A. Podolnaya, also working in the Yamal, have highlighted the growing risk of zoonosis — the spread of disease from animals to humans — associated with thawing permafrost, specifically the contagion of anthrax, whose spores can survive for 60–70 years (or longer in permafrost) originating from cattle or reindeer burial grounds in Siberia.
More recent pests have come from changing migration patterns. In the ocean, the opening up of sea ice has led to once- unknown infections reaching seals, with devastating effects on their populations. The arctic fox now must now compete with red fox populations attracted by warmer climes. Meanwhile in the arboreal forest that cover large swathes of Canada and Russia, the woods are bustling with strange noises and unfamiliar paw prints. Many mammals – hedgehogs, field mouse, wild boar – have advanced north, bringing parasites and associated pathogenic organisms that can cause infectious diseases, such as tick-borne encephalitis in humans.
This march north of flora and fauna is sometimes called the ‘greening of the Arctic’. According to climate scientist and Nobel Prize laureate Robert ‘Bob’ Corell, “there are parts of Russia where the edge of the boreal forest has already moved north – and there is a limit to how far north it can go.”
Already milder winters in the boreal forest have seen the survival rates of parasitic tree-damaging insects improve and in Siberia, evergreen conifers replacing needle-shedding larches.These conifers absorb more heat than larches, accelerating warming.
“The whole ecological system can change – and we can’t predict what the consequences will be.” says Correll. “The system has had 10,000 years to evolve. It will adapt – but it may not be one that can give humans everything they need.”
On one environmental prediction there is consensus: the near inevitability of a large- scale oil spill in the Arctic — and the near impossibility of adequately cleaning it up.
Speaking from his office in England’s Peak District, Terry Callaghan, another Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientist, agrees, stressing the difficulty of predicting how removing individual elements would affect the ecosystem as a whole: “Once you start knocking out the herbivores, the vegetation starts responding”, says Callaghan. “So you may see greening of the Arctic: not due to warming but due to a decrease in large herbivores”.
“If you had a small population of one animal you could manage it more easily. But here you have an abundance of animals. And you could see species which are now superabundant suddenly become rare”.
One such species is the polar bear, one of the so-called charismatic megafauna. Our furry friend’s prospects look bleak. The thaw and retreat of sea ice is shrinking their habitat, hunting grounds and leading to increased cub mortality. They cannot live on dry land, and according to an IPCC report on climate change from March 2014, the polar bear’s lack of adaptability makes it “most likely not be able to adapt to climate change and reduced sea ice extent”.
Predicting the impact of removing elements of the ecosystem is fraught. But on one environmental prediction there is consensus: the near inevitability of a large- scale oil spill in the Arctic — and the near impossibility of adequately cleaning it up.
“Spills are inevitable. If there are ship or pipelines, or other transport mechanisms, or just exploration, you get oil spills,” says Maynard. “The question is how much and how often, and how prepared are they to try to prevent or it, or how well will they clean it.” Maynard explains that the ability to clean up oil in ice, something she researched back in the 1970s in Anchorage, has remained illusory.
Corell agrees: “It could be from a tourist cruise ship, it could be a natural resource ship, a LNG ship — one of them has to go!” he says. “Everyone agrees that we don’t have a technical way of dealing with an oil spill in ice-filled waters — and we need one.”
Malte Humpert, the executive director of the Arctic Institute, predicts that Arctic shipping activity will increase tenfold by 2020, and with it the associated risk of local pollution and oil spills.
“Eventually there will be a spill. In the Arctic though, the environment is a lot more fragile,” says Humpert. “The rate at which oil would be taken apart by bacteria and plankton would be a lot lower because the water is so much colder.”
The inaccessibility of the Arctic means that it could take up to a week for a clean up crew to reach a spill. And, as Humpert explains, “Maybe it is winter and it is dark for 24 hours a day. It is going to be very hard to find that oil if there is 24-hour darkness.” Throw in wind, waves and ice and the task becomes near-impossible.
From the temperate atmosphere of London’s insurance marketplace, Lloyd’s outlines risks specific to the Arctic and oil that both increase the likelihood of an accident and amplify its possible impact. Among these is the fact that the heavy duty fuel required by Arctic-going ships is especially polluting; that the marine chart coverage of the Beaufort Sea, Kara Sea, Laptev Sea, and East Siberian Sea along the Northern Sea Route is patchy; and that magnetic and solar phenomena and geostationary satellite positioning make high- frequency radio and GPS all but ineffective at latitudes above 70° to 72°.The situation doesn’t look good.
For the time being at least, the Arctic is a destination for pollution, rather than a place where it originates. But like the ways of life of the Nenets reindeer herders, it may be a matter of time before this vision of an ‘innocent’ Arctic becomes a quaint reminder of a simpler past. Large-scale oil spillage seems increasingly probable, and its effects would spread well beyond the Arctic.
Gazprom’s website for the Yamal Megaproject heralds an uncompromising slogan: “There is no alternative to Yamal!”. The reindeers and the Nenet people will have to find a way of living with the gas lines. With demand for oil and gas as it stands, and the Arctic opportunities as tempting as they are, we may become inured to the reality of Arctic oil spills as accepted, necessary evils.
This is an extract from Weapons of Reason’s first issue: The Arctic. The third issue: The New Old, is available to order now.
Banner illustration by Anna Dunn.