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Industrial disasters to rise - as Arctic permafrost thaws

31 March 2023

Melting ground in the Arctic could bring thousands of industrial disasters: new study

In 2020, an industrial storage facility in Siberia collapsed, spilling around 20,000 tonnes of diesel and turning the nearby lakes and rivers bright red.

According to a new study, we can expect thousands more of these industrial disasters in the Arctic, as global warming melts the permafrost – ground that has lain frozen for thousands of years.

Radioactive waste, fossil fuels, lead, mercury, arsenic and other toxic substances have been stored in or on the Arctic permafrost for decades. The assumption? That the ground would always remain frozen and stable.

But new research estimates that up to 20,000 contaminated sites and almost 4,500 industrial sites in the Arctic could become unstable, releasing their toxic contents, if global warming continues.

In fact, around a fifth of all locations – up to 4,800 contaminated sites and 1,000 industrial sites – are already at risk due to the 1.1˚C global warming that has occurred since the late 1800s.

The paper also found that around 70 per cent of all contaminated sites are in Russia, with the remaining sites primarily in Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

There's more bad news, unfortunately. The permafrost contains over 1.5 trillion tonnes of carbon - twice as much carbon as the atmosphere and three times more carbon than humanity has released since the late 1800s. As the permafrost melts, it is releasing its enormous carbon stores into the atmosphere, where they can drive further global warming.

The Arctic is currently warming four times faster than the rest of the world. Limiting further warming will be critical to staving off future industrial disasters, the paper concludes.

Eliminating fossil fuels, which cause global warming, makes sense for many reasons. Now there's a new one.

figure 2

Industrial sites (red) across the Arctic permafrost (purple)

Image source: Langer, M., von Deimling, T.S., Westermann, S. et al. Thawing permafrost poses environmental threat to thousands of sites with legacy industrial contamination. Nat Commun 14, 1721 (2023).