The massive Norilsk fuel spill could be linked to permafrost thaw, a growing threat to Arctic infrastructure

Infrastructure built on permafrost needs to be better monitored, experts and officials say.

By Melody Schreiber - June 8, 2020

A tank collapse that led to one of the largest ever oil spills in the Russian Arctic may have been caused in part by permafrost thaw, according to the company behind the spill.

Experts have long warned that unless precautionary steps are taken, such thaw could caused billions of dollars in damage to Arctic infrastructure.

The collapse of a holding tank in the Arctic industrial city of Norilsk spilled some 21,000 tons of diesel, much of which eventually flowed into two rivers and a lake, turning them bright red. The disaster prompted a state of emergency last week.

The power plant is a subsidiary owned by Nornickel, a major producer of palladium, nickel, platinum and copper. Nornickel has said the leak was the result of ground subsidence likely caused by thawing permafrost, as the pillars supporting the fuel tank sank into the softening soil.

Greenpeace has compared the spill to the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.

[Fuel leak risk at Arctic mining site flagged by Russia years before spill]

But the disaster may have been prevented, at least in part, by simply monitoring the ground under the tank.

Dmitry Streletskiy, associate professor at George Washington University, told ArcticToday that Norilsk “is a hot spot of change” when it comes to warming permafrost, citing research he’s done with other scientists.

“We see drastic change in the region; that’s one of the most rapidly changing regions in the Arctic,” Streletskiy said.

Norilsk, home to 180,000 people, is the largest city in the world built on permafrost. About 60 percent of the houses there have been damaged by permafrost thaw, and one in 10 have been abandoned.

Permafrost temperature monitoring sites in Norilsk “show the substantial increase in the active layer, especially over the last three years,” Streletskiy said.

However, to his knowledge, there was no regular monitoring of the permafrost temperature beneath the power plant.

“If they had regular monitoring of this particular site, right, they could find that there is a problem,” Streletskiy said.

Permafrost thaw can be very difficult to track because it happens underground, and because it’s difficult to identify changes in ground temperature visually. However, an increase of only a few degrees in permafrost temperature can radically alter the permafrost’s ability to support infrastructure.

“That means that all that infrastructure that was nicely supported by those piling foundations frozen in permafrost now is not in a very good state, because the ability of permafrost to support it decreased,” Streletskiy said.

“You don’t see it, right, there is no physical evidence. So, unless you measure it, you don’t know that it’s happened.”

The solution, he said, is as simple as installing temperature monitors in the ground to keep track of the permafrost temperature.

“Those temperature loggers are cheap,” he said. “It can be all automated and it doesn’t require that much cost.”

He and other permafrost researchers have been sounding the alarm about degrading permafrost and its effects on infrastructure, particularly in Norilsk, for years.

“I find it very puzzling such a simple thing cannot be implemented for so long,” he said. He compared it to preventative healthcare or vehicle maintenance. “You don’t want your car to get broken because you didn’t change the oil.”

Streletskiy estimates that permafrost thaw could cause $80 billion in damaged infrastructure in Russia alone — and that doesn’t include the costs of cleaning up rivers and ecosystems after a disaster like this.

Salekhard, the capital of Yamal-Nenets, has already installed temperature monitors under major infrastructure, he said.

“They fear that they will be Norilsk,” Streletskiy said. “They want to prevent these types of things, and they have resources to do it.” But not all places have been able to overhaul their monitoring systems, he said.

However, the Nornickel disaster could signal a change in how thawing permafrost is monitored in the Russian Arctic.

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the law to be changed in order to prevent future disasters. The Prosecutor General’s office in Russia ordered a review of all hazardous objects and infrastructure built on permafrost. Officials are now conducting a “thorough check” into “particularly dangerous installations” located on permafrost.

Although the incident in Norilsk occurred on May 29, local authorities only learned of the incident two days later on social media.

Permafrost thaw may not be the only culprit behind the spill. The Russian safety watchdog, Rostekhnadzor, found dozens of safety violations, some of them major, during checks of the Norilsk plant in recent years.

During a televised meeting, Putin criticized Vladimir Potanin, president of Nornickel.

“If you had changed it on time there would not have been this ecological damage and the company would not have had to foot these [clean-up] costs,” Putin said. “Study this as closely as possible inside the company.”

On Friday, Potanin pledged that the company would foot the bill for cleanup costs, anticipating a cost of about 10 billion rubles ($145 million). Despite these efforts, the rivers will need decades to recover, the state fisheries agency says.

“You gotta think about how you can prevent it in the future,” Streletskiy said. “This exact same thing can happen just because of permafrost degradation.”

If nothing is done to make infrastructure more resilient, he said, these kinds of disasters will only become more likely in a changing climate.

Russia’s Arctic has seen record-breaking high temperatures this spring, and the heat could contribute to more “zombie fires” that in turn lead to more permafrost thaw.

“Climate warming leads to permafrost degradation, and this undermines infrastructure,” Streletskiy said. “There is no question about it.”

“It’s not good for pipelines, it’s not good for railroads, it’s not good for roads.”

Streletskiy called for more monitoring of permafrost temperatures, but he also recommended that officials take a longer view on monitoring and planning for these changes. Right now, for instance, a company might win a five-year contract to monitor temperatures, but when the contract ends, that data can be lost.

The monitoring programs need to be “embedded” in local and regional governments, he said. “Something that works long term.”