A Massive Oil Spill in the Arctic Has Turned a River Red

Russia declared a state of emergency after a power plant spilled 20,000 metric tons of oil and diesel fuel into a river in the Arctic Circle. The possible cause: melting permafrost due to climate change.
​Image: Andrei Marmyshev/TASS via Getty Images
Image: Andrei Marmyshev/TASS via Getty Images

A catastrophic diesel spill has dumped 20,000 metric tons of fuel into the area surrounding the Russian Arctic city of Norilsk, causing rivers to run red. In a video posted by a Russian news outlet, a person scoops up some of the discolored water and easily lights it ablaze.

For comparison, this spill volume is about half as large as the Exxon Valdez disaster, which released at least 35,000 metric tons of crude oil into Alaskan waters more than 30 years ago. Though crude oil molecules are larger and take much longer to circulate out of an environment, diesel fuel is a more toxic form of pollution.


In response to the disaster, President Vladimir Putin declared a national emergency on Wednesday in an attempt to secure funds and resources to begin the clean-up process. Though the spill occurred in a sparsely populated area, it has spread through the region’s water system, likely causing ecological damage and risks to public health.

The spill began last Friday when a fuel tank at a remote power plant owned by Norilsk Nickel, a nickel and palladium mining company, collapsed and ruptured into the Daldykan and Ambarnaya rivers. The cause of the spill is currently being investigated. In a statement, Norilsk Nickel said that the spill may have been ground instability caused by melting permafrost, which is a layer of soil common in polar regions that typically remains frozen all year.

"What we can suggest is that as a result of the abnormally mild temperatures, a melting of the permafrost could have happened that led to the partial subsiding of the support on which the tank sits," Sergey Dyachenko, Norilsk Nickel’s vice president, said in a statement reported by ABC News.

Rising global temperatures, caused by human activity, are thawing permafrost at an accelerated rate. This trend has already damaged infrastructure in the Russian Arctic, and elsewhere. Norilsk Nickel claimed in a statement that permafrost thaw caused a “sudden subsidence of supports,” according to the Siberian Times.


Though the exact role that permafrost thaw played in the Norilsk spill is still unclear at this point—which is further muddied by initial claims of a car running into a fuel tank, as reported by ABC News—experts predict that more of these catastrophes are bound to occur as permafrost is lost at high-latitudes, which could have devastating consequences for Arctic communities.

“In my opinion, these types of environmental disasters will most likely become more common as climate change continues to accelerate permafrost thaw,” said Boris Biskaborn, a geoscientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, in an email.

“Permafrost degradation is also affecting any other infrastructure such as air ports, pipe lines, streets and buildings,” he added.

Russian authorities have also indicated that criminal negligence may have played a role in the disaster, in addition to the reported effects of climate change in sparking the spill. Alexander Uss, the governor of the Krasnoyarsk territory where Norilsk is located, claims he was only alerted to the spill when social media posts about it started going viral on Sunday, according to ABC News.

Putin admonished Uss as well as the leadership of the power plant for the delay in reporting the spill, and the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation has launched a criminal investigation into the disaster. Three criminal charges have been laid and the head of the plant workshop was also detained as a suspect, according to Russian state news agency TASS. Vyacheslav Starostin, director of the power plant, has also been arrested and detained but has not been charged with a crime at this time, reports the BBC. Norilsk Nickel was previously fined for a much smaller pollutant spill in the region’s rivers in 2016, which also tinted the water red.

Cleanup crews are currently working around Norilsk, but it may take years and over a billion dollars to complete the process. While the local emergency response is important, Arctic ecosystems and communities are already under major stress due to warming temperatures, and it will require global cooperation to protect them from the escalating threats of the climate crisis.

“Climate change is causing permafrost thaw, which is not only causing infrastructure damage but also leading to further emission of greenhouse gases and thus further warming,” Biskaborn said. “To prevent such damage, we need to work on the impact of our industry and lifestyle to the global climate system.”