Russia faces double-edged sword with increasingly warmer Arctic

warmer Arctic
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dpa/GNA – Russia, which spans across more than half of the world’s Arctic coastline, is seeking to benefit from the region’s increasing accessibility in the coming years, a change brought about due to global warming.

More than 80 per cent of Russia’s natural gas supplies, one of the country’s main exports, come from the Arctic, according to the Kremlin’s 15-year strategy for developing the region, signed by President Vladimir Putin in October.

Milder Arctic temperatures mean that the Northern Sea Route, running across Russia’s Far North linking Europe and Asia, is becoming more navigable as the ice recedes. Usage of the route “will increase as a result of climate change,” the Kremlin said.

This accessibility comes at a cost, however, as climate change fosters conditions for more devastating wildfires, flash floods and other associated natural disasters elsewhere in Russia, the world’s biggest country by land mass.

Stronger storms and increased wave activity in the Arctic are also a concern impacting development of the region, said Dmitry Dobrynin, an Arctic expert at Moscow State University’s Centre for Marine Research.

“The sea ice is indeed degrading,” Dobrynin told dpa. “The ice had coped with the task of reducing the wave load.”

“My research group is very concerned about the phenomenon of increased wave impact on shorelines, man-made structures and ships,” Dobrynin said.

On top of that, a massive diesel spill in the Arctic in May evoked grave concerns among environmentalists that increased economic activity in the largely untouched region can have catastrophic consequences.

In that incident, an estimated 20,000 tons of diesel fuel spilled from a tank at a thermal power plant operated by Russian mining giant Norilsk Nickel in the Arctic Taymyr Peninsula.

“This is one of the biggest oil product accidents ever to have occurred in the Russian Arctic,” environmentalist group Greenpeace said in a statement at the time.

“The Russian government needs to reconsider the economic model of the country based on fossil fuels and environmental abuse,” Greenpeace said.

But Russia’s national economy relies on exports of commodities, particularly natural gas, oil and metals, such as the nickel mined by Norilsk Nickel, one of Russia’s largest companies.

Russia’s Arctic city of Norilsk, a hub for the mining company, is one of the world’s most polluted cities. The local air is laden with toxins from the smelting of nickel ore.

Will such realities weigh on Russia this year as it assumes the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental organization that comprises all eight countries with sovereign land in the Arctic, including the United States, Canada and the Nordics?

During its chairmanship through 2023, Russia “plans to focus on economic, social and environmental sustainable development,” the Arctic Council said in a statement.

A priority for Russia is the economic development of the Northern Sea Route “as a national unified transportation line of the Russian Federation,” the statement said.

The question is how Russia will balance that desire with the knowledge of the accompanying costs.

Noting the affects of climate change, Putin said in a nationally televised press conference just more than a year ago that Russia had been warming at a rate more than twice as fast as the global average.

Putin specified that such warming had been a direct cause of increased wildfires and flooding.

Russia’s Environment Ministry had provided a similar assessment in a report three months prior, saying the previous four years had been the hottest ever recorded.

Growth of greenhouse gas concentrations is one of the key factors driving climate change, the report said.

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