Specialists of the Russian Academy of Sciences summed up the results of a large expedition to study biodiversity in the areas where Norilsk Nickel’s production facilities are located. Field studies of land and aquatic ecosystems, flora and fauna were carried out on an area of over 73 thousand square kilometres. They were carried out throughout the year in the Murmansk Region, Trans-Baikal Territory, Taimyr and in the western part of the Northern Sea Route. Some of the results surprised the scientists.
“On the proposal of the Norilsk Nickel management, we did our best to organize a very large - and I would say the largest - expedition to the Arctic during the last 40 years. This expedition was multidisciplinary to make it possible to study the biodiversity in the Arctic zone and in the Trans-Baikal Territory,” Academician Valentin Parmon, Chairman of the Siberian Branch, the Russian Academy of Sciences, said at a press conference at TASS.
According to scientists, this research can be regarded fundamental. In addition, the expedition members managed to obtain unique scientific data in the places that have so far been poorly studied.
“In these areas, very few such systematic studies have been carried out. Therefore, in some cases, we received the latest data on certain groups of animals or plants when we went there,” said Viktor Glupov, Head of Research, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, entomologist and parasitologist, adding that this information important for science has yet to be studied.
During the expedition, the scientists determined the boundaries of the Norilsk Nickel enterprises’ influence on the environment and made unexpected conclusions.
“The most interesting is that the most intense impact on biogeocenoses lays within the sanitary protection zones, which was a surprising result. Farther on, everything changed quite gradually, and in some cases, it did not manifest itself measurably. But in general, enterprises had a critical impact on the biological diversity within 5 to12 km. Farther on, there was a significant decline in influence. It was completely unexpected for me,” said Glupov.
The scientists have identified the factors having the most significant impact, these are atmospheric chemical emissions of various components and mechanical disfigurement of a landscape. However, this impact turned out to be highly fragmented.
“For example, if soil is removed around various mines, then this has an impact. But then, the restoration of natural biotopes goes on,” Glupov noted.
According to him, indicators of the species diversity and abundance in the areas located outside the zone of significant impact (that is, outside the enterprise itself and the adjacent area) are not very much dependent on how far the industrial facilities are located.
“In the zones of relative influence we identified, and in zones of less significant influence, they were comparable to the background ones,” the scientist said.
In turn, Mikhail Gladyshev, Corresponding Member, Russian Academy of Sciences, reported on the tasks of the expedition’s team of hydrobiologists. The scientists needed to clarify the boundaries of the zone of influence of the Norilsk Nickel’s industrial facilities on the water bodies based on the study of plankton and benthos - organisms that are the food base for fish.
“The data obtained on the diversity of plankton and benthos should have potentially made it possible to make the list of water bodies that have been subjected to the most intense and negative impact, that is, to identify those water bodies where restoration measures should be carried out first of all; and to determine the effectiveness and duration of the restoration measures to understand when the ultimate goal is achieved and the basic ecological quality of water bodies can be restored,” Gladyshev explained.
According to him, all existing methods consider the damage to aquatic biological resources based on the biomass reduction.
Meanwhile, the Arctic ecosystems are characterized by low biological production of all ‘links’, including fish.
And during the expedition, the data obtained in the scientific researches carried out on Taimyr over the past 20 years were confirmed, which showed that industrial pollution of water bodies gives the so-called eutrophication effect, that is, an increase in biological productivity. In other words, in heavily impacted areas, biomass does not decrease, but increases.
“In the Norilsk region, the plankton biomass was significantly higher in all the lakes impacted to various degrees than in absolutely background lakes. But various species of fish, the most valuable ones, inhabit the background lakes. And in the lakes with a high biomass and signs of pollution, there were completely different fauna and flora, and they naturally require restoration,” the hydrobiologist said.
“Therefore, it is obvious that we should look rather at qualitative indicators than at quantitative ones. First of all, we must preserve the quality of the Arctic ecosystems, which are home to the most valuable fish species that make up the ‘golden’ gene pool for aquaculture,” Gladyshev emphasized.
Studying the biodiversity in water bodies, the experts have identified the so-called ‘indicator organisms’ that indicate whether the ecosystem is disturbed to some extent and needs restoration or, on the contrary, remains ideal and untouched.
According to the scientist, the boundaries of industrial influence on water bodies “turned out to be not as great as originally thought”.
“In principle, the water quality in the water bodies in the area of the company’s operation has been improving for 20 years. Of the 15 lakes studied in the area of operation of the Norilsk Nickel enterprises, only two turned out to be disturbed and had the strongest acidification, there was a monoculture of rotifers, an indicator organism. The rest of the lakes were in a more or less good condition with varying degrees of impact - from medium to background,” Gladyshev said.
Stanislav Seleznyov, Vice-President for industrial safety and ecology of Norilsk Nickel, stressed at a press conference that it was important for the company that the researches would be carried out in a comprehensive manner, based on the same methods and approaches in order to have a complete body of knowledge about the issue.
“Our production is quite significant as we are a mining company. We have underground mining, smelters, refineries that is why we have, of course, an impact on the environment. And it is very important for us to understand how negative this impact is; because any industry, of course, has a negative impact,” he said.
According to him, many companies carry out various studies to assess the impact of their production activities on the environment.
“But we decided to assess more globally, on a larger scale, the impact on the areas where our company production facilities are located, and to make, in fact, a large inventory of the environment around us,” Seleznyov said.
The vice-president of Norilsk Nickel said that the recommendations of the Russian Academy of Sciences based on the results of the expedition would be implemented by the company. In addition, it is planned to continue research in the coming years.