Even in the one of the harshest, most remote regions of the world, humans have managed to make quite a mess. This is a sad reality Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin learned all too well today as he visited the arctic island of Alexandra Land, some 600 miles from the North Pole. What Putin saw as he surveyed the horizon wasn't the picturesque landscape he might have imagined, but instead, as he put it, "abandoned barrels of fuel spread to the horizon." The million barrels he saw are poisonous vestiges of the Soviet era, slowly polluting a region already hit hard by rising temperatures.
According to RT, the Soviet military positioned bases on Alexandra Land and shipped in vast quantities of oil to sustain them. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the barrels were abandoned, considered too costly to transport or dispose of properly. So there they remained, slowly deteriorating in the artic snow, threatening to poison the island's ecology.
Faced with this looming crisis, Prime Minister Putin suggested his nation commit to cleaning the mess of previous generations, telling Reuters:
The reduction in military activity after the collapse of the USSR left the rubble we see now. The level of pollution is 6 times higher than normal here! We need to do a major cleanup of the Arctic. This needs to be done through cooperation between the state and private investors, but of course the state should take the first steps, and we need to do it as soon as possible.
Even without the million barrels of oil, Alexandra Land's future is precarious at best. Just in the past few decades average temperatures in the region have risen 4 º C due to global warming--threatening several endangered species found on the island, such as polar bears. While there, Putin met with scientist to discuss the effect warming has had on wildlife.
Notoriously difficult to study, researchers have stepped up efforts to monitor the island's polar bears with tracking devices--only then will they know the full extent of the impact warming has had on the polar bear population. One indicator that has polar bear experts worried, however, is an increase in mortalities.
The deputy director of Russia's Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Vyacheslav Rozhnov:
The reduction of the ice sheets, caused by climate change and human activities, is bringing about a global redistribution of polar bears, but no one knows how it is happening.
Of chief concern for Rozhnov, for now, is removing all those barrels of oil. As the ice surrounding the discarded fuel continues to melt, much of the runoff may be contaminated. According to the researcher, the pollutants "will kill everything along their path. Among them are beluga whales, walruses and polar bears."
The cleanup effort is likely to be wrought with challenges as access to the island by boat is limited throughout the year, so some are predicting it will take ten years or more before all the barrels are removed--ending the sad heritage of a bygone era. But unfortunately, cleaning up after many of today's messes will likely be a undertaking for many generations to come--as we continue to make more.