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Arctic Russia - minerals and mineral resources

Arctic Russia is rich in resources, sparsely populated and politically significant. Now environmental change is opening up this area to mineral exploration and exploitation. Geoff Glasby and Yuri Voytekhovsky* explore the potential of this vast region, remote even from Moscow.

Geoscientist 20.8 August 2010

Few people will have missed the news on 1 August 2007, when Russia used two Mir submersibles to perform the first manned descent to the seabed under the geographical North Pole at 4261m in relation to Russia’s territorial claim to the region made in 2001. The rationale for this expedition was, of course oil. Russia is claiming the right to the oil, gas and minerals of the Arctic Ocean up to the North Pole, based on the extension of the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs 1210 miles from Siberia through the North Pole almost to the junction of Ellesmere Island and Greenland. US geological data suggest that the Arctic Seabed contains up to 25% of the world’s oil and natural gas reserves and other mineral resources, which are now being made accessible by receding polar ice as global warming continues.

In the west, several commentators described the dives as a “stunt” but, in this, they were underestimating a formidable achievement. At the seafloor, the Mir crew planted a one-metre tall Russian flag made of titanium alloy, and collected sediment samples. The descent was supported by the nuclear powered icebreaker Rossiya with the power to negotiate the most challenging ice in the Arctic Ocean. When the submersibles ascended, the pilots – led by Anatoly Sagelevich, Russia’s most experienced submersible pilot – had to locate the hole through which they had descended, which had already drifted by one mile. Sagelevich was awarded the title Hero of the Russian Federation for “courage and heroism shown in extreme conditions and successful completion of the High-latitude Arctic Deep-Water Expedition”.

The hydrocarbon potential of the Arctic is important to Russia: 91% of natural gas production and 80% of Russia’s explored reserves of explored natural gas lie there. The Arctic also contains 90% of its offshore reserves. It has been estimated that the recoverable reserves of the oil and gas fields of the Russian continental shelf amount to 100 billion tonnes (13% oil, 87% gas). Of these fields, 44.4% are located in the Kara Sea, 25.6% in the Barents Sea, 8.8% in the Okhotsk Sea and 5.1% in the Pechora Sea. In the Okhotsk Sea, 3.5 x 109m3 of gas hydrates were identified within an area of about 4.36km2. Overall, it is estimated that between 2x1014 and 7.6x1018m3 of gas hydrates are located on the world’s continental shelves, making these deposits a huge potential resource. However, most of the gas hydrates exist close to their stability boundary, and minor changes in temperatures and pressure could lead to huge gas emissions. Nonetheless, both Japan and the USA plan to start commercial production of gas hydrates between 2010 and 2015.

Whether you define Arctic Russia as north of the 10° latitude line, or as the area where the average temperature in the warmest month lies below 10°C (Figure 1 – red line), it encompasses parts of the Russian mainland and some major islands. Figure 1 - Whether you define Arctic Russia as north of the 10° latitude line, or as the area where the average temperature in the warmest month lies below 10°C (red line), it encompasses parts of the Russian mainland and some major islands. Murmansk is its only ice-free port, so the development of icebreakers was crucial to opening up the Russian Arctic. The first icebreaker aimed at supporting regular navigation along the northern coast of Russia, the Krasin, was built in Newcastle In 1916 by order of the Russian Maritime Ministry.

This schematic map shows the Arctic region based on the definition the average temperature in the warmest month falls below 10°C. The 10°C isotherm is marked in red. Map shows sea ice on 14 September 2008, the date of the minimum, when ice extent was 4.52 million square kilometres. Yellow line marks the extent for September 16, 2007. Inset graph, daily ice extents for the 1979–2000 average (black line), 2007 (dotted line) and 2008 (blue line). The 2008 minimum stands as the second-lowest of the satellite record. Courtesy, National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Arctic Russia's coastline

Beyond petroleum

Interest in Arctic Russia is not confined to hydrocarbons. According to Burakova, the estimated value of Arctic minerals stands at $1.5-2 trillion. In addition, 25 mines were already operating in Arctic Russia in 2006. Most were nickel-copper mines; but tin, uranium and phosphate were also being extracted. There are also abundant placer deposits on the continental shelves, of which gold and tin are economically most important. Placer diamonds, amber and fossil ivory are also present. Of the bedrock deposits, a few tens of millions of tonnes of lead-zinc carbonate deposits have been located on the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago. Manganese is mainly associated with carbonate ores in Permian deposits in Novaya Zemlya, which are estimated to contain three billion tonnes of ore to a depth of 500m.

Of particular interest are the huge deposits of nickel, which were discovered at Pechenga in Finland in the 1930s. After the war, Norilsk Nickel plant became the largest mine in the Russian Arctic, best known for its high levels of pollution (mainly sulphur dioxide), which caused major health and environmental problems and created a barren area for kilometres around. The plant was closed in 2008 because of this extreme pollution. In July 2007, the last measurement of SO2 concentrations at the monitoring stations showed a median value of 7500 milligrams sulphur per cubic metre for one hour, more than 20 times more than the maximum recommended level of 350 milligrams per cubic metre. Later, the Norilsk Nickel plant amalgamated with the Severonickel and Pechenganickel plants in the Kola Peninsula. Although the conditions encountered at the Norilsk Nickel plant were extreme, they are typical of many of the smelters in Russia, which are surrounded by barren areas stretching for miles. As a result of SO2 emissions, Arctic haze is a common phenomenon in northern Russia. Norilsk Nickel is now one of the biggest mining groups in the world. In 2007, it produced 18.8% of the world’sNnickel, 46.3% of the world’s palladium and 12% of the world’s platinum.

The nuclear-powered icebreakers served as a symbol of Soviet technological power for many decades. Today, this fleet is used to aid ship navigation in the seas north of Siberia and for elite tourism. Here the “Taimyr” and “Vaigach” are in con

Environmental pollution

The Russian Arctic is now far from being a pristine wilderness, thanks to waste discharges from offshore oil and gas activity, smelting and nuclear weapons testing. It is also widely accepted to be severely affected by global warming. A detailed study of growth rings in juniper trees from at 69° N, 33° E in the northern Kola Peninsula (2004) provided a 676-year chronology, which showed a close relationship to known global palaeo-temperatures in Europe. Records were also taken of summer temperatures at this location between 1920 and 2000, which showed a steady decrease in temperature of about 0.2°C over this period. (Although Shumilov and his colleagues have ascribed past climate changes in the Kola Peninsula to fluctuations in solar and galactic cosmic ray activity rather than increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations.)

Over the next 15 years, global warming is expected to shorten significantly the period over which sea ice remains impenetrable in these waters. In the oceans, the seasonal minimum for Arctic ice in 2008 was recorded (on 14 September) at 4.52 x 106m3. This was the second lowest value ever recorded and it was estimated that, at the present rate of melting, the Arctic would have no sea ice left by 2060.

Arctic haze, a visible reddish brown haze at high latitudes, was first noted in the 1950s by Canadian pilots, who were puzzled by low visibility over pristine ice. The haze contains gaseous species such as SO2 and NOx as well as aerosols containing SO42-, H+, NH42+ and metals. The haze is seasonal and peaks in spring. It is most severe when stable high pressure systems produce calm, clear weather at mid-latitudes. It was long thought to be caused by coal-burning at mid-latitudes. However, recent evidence suggests that it may, in fact, be caused by forest fires and agricultural burning in Asia. Data from aircraft show that the plumes are made up of tiny particles of carbon averaging 300nm across. The plumes contained little propane or tetrachloroethene (which would indicate an industrial origin), lending support to forest-fire hypothesis. This would explain the increase in atmospheric haze over the last decade despite lower emissions from Russian factories. As a result of this pollution the Arctic is warming faster than any other area of the globe.



Smelting is Russia is a highly polluting operation that disfigures the local environment. The Monchegorsk region, for example, home to the Severanickel plant, has been devastated by smelter emissions. These trees located about 4km from the smelter were killed by the persistent high levels of sulphur dioxide. Severanickel produced black nickel for the first time in February 1939, and one year later clean nickel. In 1982, there was a substantial expansion of the operation for processing ore material from Norilsk that made this company the largest manufacturer of clean nickel in the world. In January, 2003, a new plant for the manufacture of copper, with an annual capacity of 15,000t, was brought into operation using cheaper and cleaner modern technology.

Nuclear weapons testing

The Soviet Union carried out extensive testing of nuclear weapons on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the Barents Sea: a total of 130 tests from 1955 to 1990 at latitudes between 71°N and 74°N. In all, the 224 explosive devices tested released about 265 megatons of explosive energy, including the Soviet Union’s most powerful atmospheric bomb and their most powerful underground nuclear tests. These two tests had magnitude 6.97 and 6.98 and the total yield was 4.2mt. One of them created four small ridges and uplifted a region 120m across by two to three metres. The other resulted in an 80 million cubic metre landslide and a two-kilometre long lake behind the debris.


Arctic Russia plays a key role in the Russian economy. It is particularly noted for its mineral wealth but also plays a key role in shipping. There is no doubt that these roles are bound to increase as a result of global warming.

Further reading

  • Anon 2006a. To the ends of the earth. Mining Magazine 194 (2), 22-25.
  • Anon 2006b Mineral Resources of the Russian Shelf Special Issue.115 pp.
  • Arnold, F. et al. 2009. Central Arctic Atmospheric SO2 pollution from smelters: Airborne detection and
  • Arctic Haze formation. Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 11, EGU2009-3560-1.
  • Birch, D. 2007. Russian Arctic team reaches North Pole. The Washington Post August 1.
  • Brock et al. 2009. Biomass burning in Siberia and Kazakhstan as an important ... Geophysical Research Letters 36: L022813-1.
  • Burakova, I. 2005 Development of Arctic areas to bring trillions dollars of profit to Russia. Pravda (21.04.05)
  • Glasby, G.P. 2008. A.E Fersman and the Kola Peninsula. Geoscientist 18 (7): 20-25.
  • Khalturin, V.I., Rautian, T., Richards, P.G., Leith, W.S. 2005. A review of nuclear testing by the Soviet Union at Novaya Zemlya, 1955-1990. Science and Global Security 13: 1-42.
  • Perkins, S. 2009. Plumes of Arctic haze traced to Russia, Kazakhstan. Science News 175(6), p.13.
  • Serreze, M.C. and Stroeve, J.C. 2008. Standing on the brink. Nature Reports Climate change
  • Shoumatoff, A. 2008. The Arctic oil rush. Vanity Fair May
  • Shumilov, O.I., Kasatkina, E.A., Lukona, N.V., Kirtsideli, Yu and Kanatjev, A.G. 2007. Paleoclimatic potential of the northernmost part juniper trees in Europe. Dendrochronologia 24, 123-130.

* Geological Institute, Kola Science Centre, Russian Academy of Sciences, Fersman Str. 4, Apatity 184209, Murmansk Region, Russia E: [email protected]; [email protected]

Ship's nameplate, Icebreaker