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20,000 Toxic Sites in Sagging Arctic Permafrost

New studies show the Arctic heating up at 4 times the overall rate of global warming. This startling rate in one of the most sensitive environments in the world could trigger toxic disasters in up to 20,000 industrial contamination sites.   “Industrial contaminants accumulated in Arctic permafrost regions have been largely neglected in existing climate…

Written by

Robert Hunziker


Originally Published in

New studies show the Arctic heating up at 4 times the overall rate of global warming. This startling rate in one of the most sensitive environments in the world could trigger toxic disasters in up to 20,000 industrial contamination sites.


“Industrial contaminants accumulated in Arctic permafrost regions have been largely neglected in existing climate impact analyses. Here we identify about 4500 industrial sites where potentially hazardous substances are actively handled or stored in the permafrost-dominated regions of the Arctic. Furthermore, we estimate that between 13,000 and 20,000 contaminated sites are related to these industrial sites.” (Source: Moritz Langer, et al, Thawing Permafrost Poses Environmental Threat to Thousands of Sites with Legacy Industrial Contamination, Nature Communications, March 28, 2023)


This percolating threat is starting to become reality as Arctic climate conditions shift into overdrive, heating up like never before. As stated in the Langer study: “The latest data analyses suggest up to four-fold faster warming, substantially changing the ground stability.”


“Substantially changing the ground stability” is the last thing anybody wants to hear.

Previously, it was thought that the Arctic was warming roughly 2+times faster than the rest of the planet, but this new data suggests 4-fold, which is roughly twice the rate of past warming. It is a shocker with potential to kick-start release of massive amounts of extremely dangerous toxic materials, including radioactive waste, in permafrost throughout the Far North.


“For decades, industrial and economic development of the Arctic assumed that permafrost would serve as a permanent and stable platform: Past industrial practices also assumed that perennially frozen ground would function as long-term containment for solid and liquid industrial waste due to its properties as a hydrological barrier… A number of experiments were conducted in Alaska, Canada, and Russia in which toxic liquids and solids, including radioactive waste, were deliberately placed in permafrost for containment,” Ibid.


Between 1955 and 1990, the Soviet Union conducted 130 nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere and near surface ocean of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago off the coast of north-west Russia. The tests used 224 separate explosive devices, releasing around 265 megatons of nuclear energy. More than 100 decommissioned nuclear submarines were scuttled in the nearby Kara and Barents seas. While the Russian government has since launched a strategic clean-up plan, the review notes that the area has tested highly for the radioactive substances’ caesium and plutonium, between undersea sediment, vegetation, and ice sheets…The United States’ Camp Century nuclear-powered under-ice research facility in Greenland also produced considerable nuclear and diesel waste. When it was decommissioned in 1967, waste was left in the accumulating ice, which faces a longer-term threat from changes to the Greenland Ice Sheet.” (Source: Rapidly Warming Arctic Could Cause Spread of Nuclear Waste, Undiscovered Viruses and Dangerous Chemicals, New Report Finds, Aberystwyth University, September 30, 2021)


In 2021 the Russian newswire Tass claimed the country was at “the finish line,” removing thousands of tons of radioactive material from the Arctic. However: “Since the 1990s, the Bellona Foundation has been involved in discovering and documenting nuclear hazards and radiation threats in Arctic Russia and based on that experience, the organization asserts that Likhachev’s announcement is untrue — Russia is nowhere near the “finish line” in these efforts.” (Source:  Rosatom Says Nuclear Cleanup in Arctic Done — Far from the Case, Says Bellona, Bellona, June 7, 2023)


The problem may be magnified beyond what’s already known simply because, to date: “There has been no assessment of the environmental impact of these activities on the Arctic as a whole,” Ibid. In other words, nobody really knows what’s happened or what’s happening. This is a new under-researched arena of study that has horns protruding like glistening daggers in the night.


The following research of danger lurking in the Arctic should spook the daylights out of anybody: “Over 110 of Russia’s decommissioned nuclear submarines still have operating nuclear reactors, which, according to Russian designs, means two reactors per vessel or more than 220 individual reactors. There is nowhere to put the liquid waste or to store the spent fuel, so the reactors have to keep operating with only skeleton crews. While, in the past, one country’s failure to safely dispose of its military hardware might rightly have been viewed as its own problem, the case of nuclear submarines cannot be seen in the same light. The proliferation threats these vessels pose is global, due to the large amounts of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium—the key ingredients of nuclear weapons—contained in their fresh and spent fuel. This enormous stockpile of fissile material, which is currently not well protected from theft or diversion, presents an attractive target for a potential proliferator, whether a rogue state or sub-state actor.” (Source: Dismantling Russia’s Nuclear Subs, Arms Control Association, May 19, 2021)


Throughout the Arctic, the issue of what to do for remediation or cleanup is compounded due to the loss of ground stability which limits access to impacted sites and use of heavy equipment. As such, permafrost melt creates a barrier to cleanup. The Langer study found that many former industrial-use facilities are now abandoned and difficult to access.


In the face of clear warnings, the scope of danger is increasing in real time because of new industrial development. There are no international environmental regulations for the Arctic as formulated for the Antarctic in the Madrid Protocol that requires transparent documentation of contamination and potential sources of hazardous substances. However, governance for the Arctic falls under an umbrella organization called PAME (1991) that established an Arctic Council. PAME does delineate environmental issues and shipping issues with a softball approach that does not appear to have teeth for enforcement.


At the same time as scientists uncover more and more risks of toxic materials, the situation is made all the worse because of increased economic interest and commercial development in a less forbidding melting Arctic. But that is merely a ruse as it’s more forbidding than ever before; a melting Arctic is filled with unexpected dangers lurking right around the corner. There is risk of multiple contaminated sites leaking at the same time whilst new industrial development runs amok. Alas, this is starting to look like an exercise in madness at a level of human stupidity seldom witnessed in the history of civilized society. Such situations likely never end well.


Oceana Warns That Irresponsible Industrialization of the Arctic Could Lead to Catastrophic Consequences Worldwide, Oceana – “Protecting the World’s Oceans”: “This sea ice loss has also opened the Arctic to the immediate threat of rapid industrialization. As Arctic sea ice melts, Arctic waters have become susceptible to new threats of increased industrial fishing, shipping, and oil and gas exploration and development. Increasing human activities could significantly accelerate the threats facing the Arctic, which would have cascading effects all over the world.”


The Norilsk Diesel Tank Incident


The disaster scenario is already playing-out for all to witness: The Norilsk Diesel Tank Incident d/d June 2020: A regional emergency was declared in the city of Norilsk when the supporting posts in the basement of a storage tank of diesel fuel suddenly sank because of cascading permafrost causing 21,000 tonnes of diesel to pour into rivers and lakes in Russia’s Arctic North. President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency. Just wondering: How many diesel tanks are located in the Arctic permafrost?


The scope of the Arctic permafrost problem is beyond belief with (1) pesticides like DDT packed in barrels and buried in the permafrost (2) increasing oil leaks by pipelines that stretch throughout the landscape (3) radioactive materials buried around former and current military bases, and (4) deposit reservoirs containing numerous industrial toxicants. Making matters even worse yet, only recently Canada’s massive fires are bringing into focus a whole new dynamic. Wildfires could be sending up plumes of toxicant-laden smoke that spreads across the land and to adjoining countries, like the USA.


Throughout the Arctic, airport runways are sinking, roads are cascading, and buildings are tilting, as some of the most toxic materials known to humankind sit in waiting to be released into the environment because of man-made global warming; once again proving the ancient proverb: “You reap what you sow.” According to Darcy Peter, a permafrost researcher at Woods Hole Research Center: “I’ve heard of dozens of houses falling in, and a few churches. There are multiple graveyards that are falling in, and there’s nothing that anybody can do.” (Eos, June 24, 2020)


Analysts that research and study Arctic permafrost say: “It’s a ticking time bomb.”


As the Arctic fall season of 2023 turns into an icy Arctic winter, which is a shadow of its former self, COP28 is scheduled to be held in Dubai where oil sheiks have taken over control of the science-based UN meeting aka: Conference of the Parties for the UN Climate Change Conference starting in a few weeks, late November, when nations of the world and at least 100+ prime ministers and presidents show up for photo ops with Bono to allegedly challenge climate change with 80,000 attendees roaming the decorated halls, similar in many respects to extravagant US auto shows, that presupposes “all will be well, just hang in there, we’ll find solutions.” That would be historic!


Will climate scientists attend?


Robert Hunziker

Los Angeles