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Air pollution and ground disturbance in the Russian Arctic

Air pollution and ground disturbance in the Russian Arctic

Arctic and sub-arctic forest and, especially, tundra ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to the effects of surface and airborne industrial pollution, with low tolerance and long regeneration times. The diversity of vegetation species in the Arctic is generally low, and the potential for significant loss of biodiversity is consequently high. In some areas, the loss of habitat (for example, for reindeer and migratory birds) is also of great importance. In the former Soviet Union problems of this type are widespread. Exploitation of the considerable mineral resources of the northern regions at first paid little regard to the environmental consequences, later suppressed information about them. Since shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union a growing awareness of and official concern about these problems has developed. However, attempts to address the environmental problems from within Russia are hindered by great uncertainty as to the scale of the problem (many of the affected areas being remote and inaccessible) and by economic constraints.

The Polar Landscapes and Remote Sensing Group is engaged in a long-term programme of research into the potential for satellite and airborne remote sensing to study the phenomena of Arctic surface and airborne pollution effects, in collaboration with the Geography Faculty of Moscow State University. This programme was begun in 1993. The first stage was a study of damage to upland lichen tundra vegetation on the Kola Peninsula of Russia as a result of huge emissions of sulphur dioxide from the nickel smelter at Monchegorsk. The results show a decrease of almost 50% in the area of healthy tundra, from 960 to 520 square kilometres, between 1980 and 1992, with most of the change occurring after 1989. Although this research is still active, we currently believe that the recent massive growth of the damaged area is a result of a change in local weather patterns.

Since 1995 the air pollution and vegetation research has been extended to study the effects of sulphur dioxide emissions (currently about 2 million tonnes a year) from the nickel smelter at Noril'sk on the Taimyr Peninsula of Russia. A phenological correction algorithm has been developed to distinguish pollution impact and natural seasonal changes of vegetation, which are very significant in high-latitudes. This provides an important increase in accuracy for change detection mapping.

We also are developing remote sensing/GIS methods for the study of oil spills on frozen ground. Oil pipelines in permafrost regions are very susceptible to damage from mechanical stresses, and large spills are not uncommon in the Russian north. Little is currently known about the behaviour of oil spilled onto permafrost, and we are working with the Geotechnical Science Laboratories, Carleton University, Ottawa, to develop methods for monitoring and prediction of both the spill itself, and the post-spill situation, based on data from a wide range of spatial scales, from the microstructural to the kilometric. Such methods should have a major impact on the identification of appropriate remediation strategies.


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