NSR Environmental Impact Statement

(By J. Thomassen, K.A. Moe, O.W. Brude ; INSROP Working Paper No. 163 – 1999,II.5.10)

The efforts of INSROP Sub-programme II: Environmental Factors (1993-1998), have been placed on two main components:

  • A systemised base of information that characterises the environment in the which the activity occur, e.g. the baseline data in the Dynamic Environmental Atlas (Working Paper 99-1998).
  • Tailored methods and routines for damage analyses and a systematic process for implementation, e.g. a stepwise approach to selection of focal natural resources, identification of relevant Impact Factors of the activity, and indication of likely interactions by simple and robust assessments and analyses.

The integration of these two, in terms of the NSR Environmental Assessment & Planning System makes the INSROP Environmental Assessment complementary to basic elements in Strategic Environmental Assessment. The results of the study, the baseline of the temporal and spatial distribution of vulnerable natural resources, an integrated information system, and tailored methods for impact analyses, e.g. provide a basis for environmental considerations relevant to NSR activities in the short term and for strategic long-term assessments of future developments.

The main components of the system were selected as cost-effective solutions to implement state-of-the-art computing technology. INSROP GIS is developed as an ArcView application for use on PCs running Microsoft Windows.

The following overall conclusions can be made:

  • Except for ports, harbours, ship yards etc., there is no historical evidence that navigation itself has proven significant impact on the marine environment. The same can be applied to NSR. Sailing on the NSR has been carried on for decades. Even if significant local contamination of ports and harbours, accummulation of waste and garbage on the shore etc., are documented, there is no evidence that the large scale trends of some declining ecosystem component populations have been caused directly by this sailing.
  • Increased sailing frequency however, will inevitably increase the risk for ship accidents, and correspondingly increase the risk of accidental release of oil. Large scale oil spilles can have deleterious impact on the marine environment. The most vulnerable period is assumed to be during the most productive season, e.g. the late spring-summer, which also correspond to the most frequent sailing period. In this period vulnerable natural resources are patchily spread all over the NSR area. On a spatial scale, particular attention should be placed on the protected areas. The Lena reserve, recently expanded to include the New Siberian Island, is one of the focal areas.

However, from an environmental point of view, there is also an obvious link between the commercial shipping on the NSR, via the port, harbour and loading facilities, to land-based development of harbour, ports, loading facilities, industry and infrastructure. These activities have shown to cause local to regional impact on the terrestrial environment of the Russian north, as in Arctic environment elsewhere. The plans for offshore oil development reflect the introduction of new Impact Factors in the NSR, activities that provide chronic discharges to the sea and emissions to the air.

The Arctic environment is currently exposed to contaminants and stress in a number of modes. In essence, it is thecumulative effect, e.g. the sum of the stress from every individual source that provides the overall impact and significance to the environment. This also include impact factors and loads not assessed in details in the INSROP EIA (cf. POPs, which are focal items of AMAP). The Arctic pollution is definitely of growing concern among authority bodies and the scientific community. Correspondingly, a trend of more frequent low level environmental deviations gradually reduces the common perception of the Arctic as a pristine environment. In this context increased development of the NSR forms additional factors that inevitably will contribute to the current load in some way or another:

  • Physical disturbance are generated by shipping operations, dredging of harbours and land-based developments such as oil and gas production. The latter, in terms of pipeline construction and constructions, is known to cause habitat fragmentation and physical barriers, which indirectly affect the herd of reindeer by indigenous peoples.
  • Releases of contaminants like radionuclides from nuclear waste, petroleum hydrocarbons from extraction and transportation of oil and gas, and persistan organic pollutants from power stations, mining industry and landfills, are considered among the most pronounced threats to the NSR environment. The marine, limnic and terrestrial environment are experienced to suffer significantly from such releases.
  • Accidental oil spills may virtually provide the most serious impact. If this happens at the “wrong” place at the“wrong” time in the marine environment, at the ice edge, in polynias etc. during the high production period, the impact can be significant. The shallow waters are considered most sensitive to such pollution. These areas are important to organisms of all levels of the Arctic food web, and adverse effects may easily pass from one level to another and ultimately affect the entire ecosystem on a regional basis. The limnic and terrestrial environment has proven to be equally sensitive. The freshwater systems of the Arctic are poorly buffered and sensitive to pollution. If significantly affected, the impact may last for decades because of the slow recovery of this environment.
  • Chronic, long term-low level pollution may affect all ecosystem levels within a given area. However, it is the low-dose – long term exposure that is the most serious threat to the environment. Arctic is no exception to this. In the marine environment the shallow waters of the harbours, ports and loading facilities is experienced to suffer the greatest impact. The relevance of offshore water organisms maintaining a state of chronic stress generated by regular, low-level oil discharges from shipping operations in the NSR, seems not likely. The limnic and terrestrial environment have shown to be subjected to many smaller spills and leakages of oil from land-based petroleum developments. Significant impact is currently widespread in western Siberia, and if the current development strategies are not changed dramatically, similar patterns can be foreseen in new development regions.
  • Interaction between man-made noise and the environment may be temporal or chronical. Temporal noise is considered of less importance, unless it occurs on the “wrong” place at the “wrong” time (cf. bird cliffs, haul-out sites etc.. The exposure to chronic noise may result in habitat abandonment of higher trophic level organisms like birds and mammals, but habituation will occur. If habitats or home-ranges of vital importance are permanently lost, damage on population level is not unlikely.
  • Accumulation of contaminants is facilitated by the many Arctic organisms’ ability to withstand food shortage by storing energy in the form of body-fat when food is available. Consequently, the adverse effects of contaminants may be more severe in cold climate than in temperate regions. Ultimately, the bioaccumulation may reach the indigenous and local peoples if the natural resources within their main residence area and subsistence branches are affected. These, as well as other activities that may be harmful to the linkage between the environment and ethnicity should be assessed in details prior to project implementation.

In general, environmental damage in the Arctic may last for longer periods than in temperate regions. The transfer of damage in the food web is facilitated. In any ways however, the damage is a function of the fate of the impact factor, resources at risk and their ecological attributes. Consequently, the vulnerability of the Arctic organisms varies from species to species and between time periods and geographical regions.

The current environmental status of the NSR environment is a function of the load from NSR activities in the past as well as other factors that in some way or another have had or still have a significant influence on the NSR environment. Some of these factors are located within Arctic, some are outside the Arctic. The basis for such comparisons however is vague. The resolution of the baseline data is in most cases inappropriate for identification of temporal and spatial trends in key biochemical parameters (e.g. contaminant levels, population trends etc.). The corresponding comparison of sources and their importance, in terms of weighting the load from NSR activities vs. other loads within as well as outside the Arctic, can not be measured quantitatively by scientific means.


    J. Thomassen, K.A. Moe, O.W. Brude, 1999, NSR Environmental Impact Statement, INSROP.©

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