Western Siberia- Environmental Issues

We will discuss the many environmental issues related to oil and gas development in the West Siberia Oil Fields later in the semester when we have a guest lecture by Andrei Tolstikov from Tyumen State University.

In the southern portion of Western Siberia, despite the reputation of the Altai Republic as a "pristine" and healthful recreational area, there appear to be health consequences to air born contaminants from Kazakhstan. Although it is difficult to attribute cancer rates to any single cause, particularly where there is a relative lack of reliable data (as is the case in Siberia), there are some possible correlations to major environmental disasters such as the drying of the Aral Sea and the history of above ground nuclear testing and fall-out from rocket launches. A comparison of mortality rates in Russia and the Republic of Altai revealed increased proportions of cancer of the trachea, bronchus and lung in males and females, as well as gastric cancers in males and of esophageal cancers in females.1

Impact of Aral Sea

The Aral Sea is estimated to be more than 5 million years old. It was the fourth largest lake in the world; Prior to diversion of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya Rivers, the lake had a surface area of about 24,000 square miles. This diminished to 6,600 square miles by 2004 because of water diversions for agricultural irrigation. It has lost 90% of its source waters and two thirds of its surface area, and its salinity has increased fourfold. Changes in the lake have caused local climates to change and desertification has increased, along with rates of respiratory diseases and cancers from salt and toxic-laden dusts.2

Immense dust storms transport salts and toxic residues from the salt pans left after large portions of the Aral Sea floor were exposed. Below is an image from NASA's Google Earth Gallery of part of a gigantic dust storm blowing out of Kazakhstan and into the southern districts of Western Siberia (the Aral Sea is circled in the lower left corner).

Nuclear Testing and Space Program

Kazakhstan, formerly a Republic of the Soviet Union, can be compared to parts of the U.S. Southwest considered to be "National Sacrifice Areas" with regard to nuclear testing and other major environmental impacts. The consequences of these activities also affect people living in the southern regions of Western Siberia because of the direction of the prevailing winds.

The map below shows the location of the Baiknour Launch Pad, where Russian space capsules bound for the International Space Station (including American Astronauts) are still being launched. The Semipalatinsky Test Site (the city has been renamed Semey after Kazakhstan gained its independence) is also indicated.

Rocket fuel and debris from launches from the Baiknour launching pad in Kazakhstan regularly fall on the southern mountains in the Altai Republic. One recent crash was reported in the New York Times:

"The Progress is a cargo spaceship that the Russians call a space truck, routinely launched to the space station carrying spare parts, fuel, food, oxygen, water and other items.

The Soyuz design is a 1960s holdover that jettisons four bulky booster rockets soon after liftoff, then flies in three stages to space. It carries both manned and unmanned spaceships to the space station.

At the launching on Wednesday, the Progress lifted off as planned on top of a Soyuz rocket. A little more than five minutes later, however, the rocket’s third-stage engine shut down sooner than it should have, before the spacecraft had enough velocity to reach orbit.

The rocket and Progress ship crashed in the dense Siberian forest. The Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations said rocket debris landed in three separate areas of the Altai region in southern Siberia, which borders Mongolia.

The regional governor, Yuri Antaradonov, said the police had cautioned people to stay clear of the wreckage, as it could be contaminated with toxic fuel. His only concern, he said, was that some people may have been camped in the forest at the time of the crash because “it is the season of collecting pine nuts” in that part of Siberia."

One of our colleagues in the region had this to say about the accident:

"This rocket has fallen two steps away from our heads! We are so indignant here at what destiny was chosen for the Altai Mountains - to make a disposal dump out of our living place. When Russian TV news first talked about this crash or explosion (we still don't know) they comforted people: Don't worry, our people in space at ISS can live without the food that this rocket was to bring them for two months more (then later they said until March). I am shocked that no one has expressed any hint of worry about the people who live in the zone of the tragedy. What happens? Even a few words of regret about people who now and then have to live next to the place used as dump for radioactive garbage would do! No people got hurt luckily - directly from the Progress crash, but we are waiting to know the aftereffects of this event. How many tons of heptyl were there? People from some laboratories have taken samples of soil, water and grass.

I just don't want either rockets or their stages to drop on us. I know that the Russian space agency knows more about their harm than we do, but they don't bother.
A sad topic really."

Although above ground nuclear testing ended in 1963, the Soviet Union’s last underground nuclear test took place on 24 October 1990. The Soviet Union carried out 715 tests between 1949 and 1990 (United Nations), 456 of which occurred at the Semipalatinsky test site (Soviet Nuclear Test Summary). The Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement was formed in 1989 to protest nuclear testing (the logo is pictured on the left).

Today scientists working in the Altai Republic still find elevated levels of radioactive materials in the southern mountains. The U.S. and Kazakhstan have an ongoing joint program to clean up the test site.3


1. Volkotrub LP, Egorov IM, Doktorova EE (2001). Malignant neoplasms in the Republic of Altai. Gig Sanit, 6, 29-32. [Article in Russian] cited in Moore, M.A. and colleagues (2010). Chronic Disease Prevention Research in Central Asia, the Urals, Siberia and Mongolia - Past, Present and Future Asian Pacific J Cancer Prev, 10, 987-996.

2. http://www.worldlakes.org/lakedetails.asp?lakeid=9219

3. http://www.npr.org/2010/11/19/131449507/soviet-nuclear-test-site-now-a-model-for-safeguards
Environmental Issues.kml
Dr. Cynthia Annett,
Feb 7, 2012, 8:19 PM