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The Arctic is eternal

The Arctic is eternal

21.11.2012 — Analysis

In late September, the Yamal-Arctic 2012 comprehensive research expedition, which was organized at the initiative of the governor of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District, Dmitry Kobylkin, completed its work. Its route passed through waters of the northern seas and along the western coast of the Yamal Peninsula. Scientists took water, air, and soil samples, which will help them to assess the environmental condition of the Russian Arctic shelf. The first deputy governor of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, Vladimir Vladimirov, discussed the expedition's preliminary findings with this columnist for RusBusinessNews.

- Deputy Governor Vladimirov, what were the objectives of the Yamal-Arctic 2012 expedition? Did it meet its goals?

- The Yamal-Arctic 2012 expedition was conducted as part of the Russian state policy for comprehensive Arctic development. The Center for Arctic Research was established in Yamal at the direction of the governor of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, Dmitry Kobylkin, and work is underway to create a major, international, multipurpose complex in the Russian Arctic.

For us, the practical significance of the research is the most important, because the exploration and development of offshore areas has been significantly expanded. The construction of an Arctic sea port has begun in the village of Sabetta on the Yamal peninsula, which is an indication of the economic success of this region, the Urals Federal District, and Russia in general. This is an event of global significance, because the construction of this port helped revitalize the Northern Sea Route, which encourages the world to see the economy of the Arctic regions in a different light.

Other major infrastructure projects are also emerging in the Arctic latitudes. The Bovanenkovo gas field will soon be producing at full capacity, which is a stepping stone for the comprehensive development of hydrocarbon deposits on the Yamal Peninsula and for the further development of the Arctic shelf.

Naturally all these factors will result in a human impact on the vulnerable environment of the Far North. This is why we really need intensive research such as that being conducted by the Yamal-Arctic 2012 expedition. The governor believes that the scale of the research must be commensurate with the scale of the economic development. And I'd like to point out that no single expedition has carried out comprehensive research like the Yamal-Arctic 2012 since the days of the Soviet Union.

We continually monitor the environment in Yamal. But a sea-based scientific center, with access to the bays, will be able to give a more complete picture. The findings will tell us a lot about the current situation and will help us to better preserve the Arctic habitat, institute a policy to safeguard the indigenous ethnic groups, protect and develop the traditional livelihoods of the native peoples of the North, and build more full-fledged relationships with our partners in the fuel and energy industry.

We currently have a good relationship with that industry. As part of our joint programs of scientific and technical cooperation, we're always working together, which includes searching for the technical means and measures needed to minimize effects on the environment. But the expedition's scientific center will make it possible to greatly increase the effectiveness of these measures, and the center's findings will help to achieve the goals behind many of the regional government's efforts and will provide the wherewithal to address a great number of social, humanitarian, and, of course, economic problems, which will to a large extent protect us from potential mistakes in the future.

The objective of any expedition is to collect scientific data in accordance with its agenda. And if we're speaking in terms of the volume and quality of data, these objectives have been met or even exceeded. This expedition was completed in two phases. During the field phase, samples were taken of the soil, rivers, lakes, and seawater on the Yamal and Gydan peninsulas. During the sea phase, sounding was conducted on the water column in the 6-12 horizons of the southern Kara Sea, and a sample of the seawater was taken and then subjected to hydrochemical analysis. In addition, the expedition members exceeded their target number of samples, during both the first and second phases, by about 50%.

- Does the government of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District now have a full picture of the results of the human impact on the Arctic environment?

- Of course not. First, even if the human influence were to cease, its repercussions have been set in motion and would continue for some time. Second, although there's no doubt that the expedition has been responsible for great progress in the research on human impact, the scope of the industrial development of Yamal and Gydan is still not commensurate with the scope of the scientific understanding of the processes that accompany such intensive development.

But I'd like to note that a certain threshold has been passed - the parameters of the problems have been outlined and the questions formulated. Some of the answers have been found, while others will be discovered during the course of the laboratory research, and some issues will continue to be examined as part of the monitoring. In short, by integrating research from various fields of science, a successful attempt has been made to gain control of the progressive effects of industrial development. Future objectives include expanding the integration of previously obtained data, data obtained by other research teams, and data obtained from other Arctic areas.

- How heavily polluted are the Yamal, Taz, and other regions that have been subjected to human influence?

- There are no clear criteria for what qualifies as "heavily polluted." However, we can identify the warning signs of an "ecological disaster" or an "ecological catastrophe." The research thus far has not detected either of these conditions, but we should remember that the laboratory phase has just begun. Also, we need to keep in mind that any area being developed industrially is by definition always "polluted," such as, for example, resort areas. And the challenge for state agencies is to keep this to a minimum.

- Is the natural environment of the Arctic able to repair itself? And how long does this take?

- It can. But there's the issue of two forces working against one another - continued pollution vs. self-regeneration. Or, relatively speaking, the issue of their speed and acceleration. As a matter of fact, the government of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District is continually focused on this dynamic. Some quantitative assessments will be provided once the analyses have been completed.

- Have the inhabitants of Yamal been able to adapt to the changes in the environment? Are the increased industrial operations in the region affecting human health?

- Humans always adapt to changes, whether those are environmental, climatic, social, etc. The increased industrial operations in the region can affect human health, but shouldn't. And that is precisely the task of the government of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District - to forestall the negative effects of industrial development.

- What processes are taking place in the world's oceans? Is that having an effect on climate or the ecosystem?

- According to data from scientists, the oceans of interest to us are most seriously affected by the flow of warm water from the Atlantic into the Arctic basin. The findings of the expedition suggest that the Atlantic has penetrated a bit farther than usual into the Arctic. In particular, this means that the surface area and structure of the Arctic Ocean ice cap will begin to change and shrink. Which in turn signifies changing weather conditions and a subsequent change in ecosystems.

- What does the government of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District intends to do after studying the expedition's findings?

- We intend to minimize the repercussions of industrial development. The pursuit of a scientific grasp of the processes of industrial development will continue, and a monitoring system has been created on the basis of our own expedition research, as well as a system for integrating data from other teams.

What is human health worth? It's priceless. This is why, among our other tasks, we have done some very important work by conducting biomedical research on the indigenous peoples of the North - the residents of remote, out-of-the-way villages. This will provide us with specific knowledge and answers to questions about what the government of the district can and should do to safeguard their health and traditional way of life ...

We currently have no clear understanding of the effect the Arctic environment and the human impact have on people. The authorities in Yamal will support the study of these issues without cutting corners. There's currently a lot of talk about the Arctic, but the Arctic itself is silent. We simply do not know how much salt, petroleum by-product, and suspended particulate matter are present in the air and soil. The findings of this expedition have helped us come up with some numbers, as well as a starting point to facilitate the further understanding of the full nature of these many processes.

When we began our expansion into the North, we all understood that the goal was to find hydrocarbons. But now we understand that the biological resources in the Arctic, such as the reserves of potable water, are no less important. How much could we have changed if we had known about this in 1975? Probably we would have taken a somewhat different approach to the industrial development of the Russian North. But unfortunately, the numbers must be based on a forecast that is limited to a 15-year interval. I think that by using the data that has been collected and studying it carefully, we will be able to show that the Arctic can't be evaluated over the course of just 10-15 years. The Arctic is eternal.


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