Nornickel, the parent company of the Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company, which operates the station, said the accident could have been the result of a tank sinking due to the thawing of the permafrost, Russia’s state news agency TASS reported.
As an oil spill scientist, I see unique dangers in the Arctic. This outpouring warns of an uncertain future for which we are unprepared.
Whenever I find out about an oil spill, I immediately ask two questions: What kind of oil spilled and where did it spill? Crude oil, a species spilled in the disasters of Exxon Valdez (1989) and Deepwater Horizon (2010), is thicker and more beautiful, but it also makes it visually obvious and easier to track and clean.
Diesel oil that spread in the Arctic disaster is less viscous and harder to retain and recover. Once the oil is in the water, the plants and animals will find themselves wrapped in a coat of strong hydrocarbons. In the short term pound per kilogram, diesel fuel is significantly more deadly than crude oil and can cause long-term damage.
There is part of my first “where” question. With the oil spill, it’s all about location. Among the worst places to spill diesel is a closed body of water, such as a slow-flowing river or estuary. I studied three such spills.
The spill of the deepwater horizon was a major challenge, but the established infrastructure and ready access to the Gulf of Mexico were crucial in the cleanup effort. There is little such infrastructure in the Arctic.
All of these things mean that we have a huge learning curve ahead of us and a short time for it. The area of the river Ambarnaya in Siberia will have to do what the respondents can quickly manage and tick the clock. But this will almost certainly not be the last outpouring on the Arctic.
Warmer temperatures mean that soon more ship traffic will be directed to the northern passage between Europe and Asia – ships powered by diesel and other refined fuels. Warming the temperature also means more thawing of the permafrost, causing the soil to move and collapse, and putting infrastructure, such as Russia’s fuel tank, more and more in danger.
The world is full of dangers for which we could and should be more prepared. To this list we must add the vulnerability of the Arctic to oil spills. We need foresight, will and investment to develop strategies and policies to reduce the costs and impacts of future spills – so that we can now prepare effective responses to the inevitable Arctic oil spills and not react in vain to them once they occur.