Norilsk, Russia — The inescapability of the company town on the tundra – by Mia Bennett ( – February 2015)

There are many ways of framing Arctic climate change.

On the one hand, countries in the south often see themselves as potential victims of the melting Greenland ice sheet and rising sea levels. On the other hand, in the north, Arctic residents often view themselves as the victims of massive levels of industrialization and urbanization in the south. Most of the world’s greenhouse gases emissions, after all, can be traced to the United States, China, Europe, and Russia.

These emissions are driving environmental changes like warming temperatures and ocean acidification, which are exacerbated in the north by the polar amplification effect. Arctic residents then wonder whether it is fair for them to have to pay, often with their traditions and livelihoods, for people in the south to enjoy all the creature comforts of modernity.

But it’s not so simple as that. The Arctic, too, has sooty, polluting cities, some of which have a higher carbon footprint than cities in the middle and southern latitudes. Several of these can be found in the Russian Arctic, which is more industrialized than any other Arctic country’s northern area. Starting in the 1930s, the Soviet Union began a massive push to industrialize and conquer the north. Millions of people were forced to move to inhospitable places like Vorkuta and Magadan, which quickly mushroomed into burgeoning cities on the tundra.

They were, in essence, temples to Soviet delusion. From 1926 to 1989, the urban population of Siberia (not all of which is in the Arctic) rose by 448 percent. In 1926, Siberia’s level of urbanization was only 13.3 percent; by 2010, it had reached 72 percent. Today, Siberia has a higher level of urbanization than countries like Italy and Turkey. Far from living in pre-modern dwellings and using only Siberian huskies to get around, many denizens of the Russian Arctic live in high-rise apartment buildings, drive cars (specially outfitted to cope with minus-40-degree temperatures), and upload videos to YouTube about daily trials and tribulations.

While only 8 percent of Russia’s population lives in the Russian Arctic, the region produces some 60 percent of raw materials. Given all of this large-scale natural resource extraction, the per capita carbon emissions in the Russian Arctic are likely extremely high. Russia’s most polluting metropolis is Norilsk, the world’s second largest city north of the Arctic Circle. The city was the main center of operations for the Norillag gulag camps, where thousands were forced to work in the mining-metallurgical complex.

Today, in this city that now has a population of 175,000, nickel ore continues to be mined and smelted at great expense to human health and the environment. After watching this official Norilsk Nickel video, which describes in celebratory terms how metallic dust, fire, and water all combine to smelt nickel, it’s no surprise that the city is one of the ten most polluted places on earth. The narrator lauds, “Horizons are illuminated with the sparks of the polar lights, and hot flames blaze in the manmade furnaces. Work never ends under the surface in the mines.” The Soviets’ worship of technology, modernization, and labor lives on in Norilsk.

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