A dangerous leak of diesel fuel in the Arctic

In this photo provided by the Russian Marine Rescue Service, rescuers work to prevent the spread of an oil spill outside Norilsk, Russia, on June 2.

Christopher Reddy is a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN)An approximately 5-million-gallon diesel fuel spill from a power station storage tank near the Arctic town of Norilsk, Russia, poses a deadly threat to the region's people, plants, and animals. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, who doesn't have a strong environmental track record, has declared a state of emergency.

Christopher Reddy
Nornickel, the parent company of Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company, which operates the station, said the accident could have been the result of the foundation of the storage tank sinking due to thawing permafrost, the Russian state news agency TASS reported.
    As an oil spill scientist, I see unique dangers in the Arctic. This spill is a warning of a precarious future that we are unprepared for.
    Whenever I learn about an oil spill, I immediately ask two questions: What type of oil spilled and where did it spill? Crude oil, the kind spilled in the Exxon Valdez (1989) and Deepwater Horizon (2010) disasters, is thicker and stickier, but that also makes it visually obvious and easier to track and clean up.
    Crude oil spills can be corralled with the help of booms -- large, floating barriers -- and skimmed with equipment that physically removes the oil from the water. Crude oil-covered objects along shorelines can be cleared away.
    Diesel oil, which spilled in the Arctic disaster, is less viscous and harder to contain and recover. Once the oil is in the water, plants and animals will find themselves enveloped in a coat of potent hydrocarbons. Pound-for-pound in the short term, diesel fuel is significantly more lethal than crude oil and can cause longer-lasting damage.
    Then there's the "where" part of my first question. With oil spills, it's all about location. Among the worst places for a diesel spill to occur is an enclosed body of water, like a slow-flowing river or inlet. I have studied three such spills.
    In September 1969, a barge ran aground in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, spilling diesel and causing massive deaths of marine life and marsh grass in bays that are similar to those found along the Arctic coastline.
    Residents still refer to the "Silent Autumn" that followed for the lack of bird life in the area that season. It took up to five years for marsh grasses to grow back, and 50 years later, grasses, crabs, and mussels in the area still show detrimental impacts from the spill.
    While a total volume of about 5 million gallons pales in comparison to the 11 and 168 million gallons released from the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon disasters, respectively, the "what" and "where" of the spill will lead to a much greater relative amount of damage.
    Despite its similarities to Cape Cod, the Arctic is unknown territory for oil spill responders. Unlike coastlines here or in the Gulf of Mexico, we haven't mapped the Arctic Ocean's seafloor or traced currents in detail. Its weather is harsher, particularly in winter. We also don't know nearly as much about its fragile and intricate ecosystem.
    On top of all that, the vast, remote Arctic has singular logistics problems. It has limited ports, roads and airports, available to for bringing in equipment, supplies, responders, and scientists -- and few places to house and feed people who show up to help. On Friday, TASS reported, the first stage of the cleanup operation was completed.
    The Deepwater Horizon spill was a major challenge, but the established infrastructure and ready access in the Gulf of Mexico was instrumental to the cleanup effort. Little such infrastructure exists in the Arctic.
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    All of these things mean that we have a vast learning curve ahead of us and a short time to navigate it. The Ambarnaya River region in Siberia will have to make do with what the responders can manage in a hurry and with the clock ticking. But this will almost certainly not be the last spill we hear about in the Arctic.
      Warming temperatures mean that more ship traffic will soon be plying the northern passage between Europe and Asia -- ships powered by diesel and other refined fuels. Warming temperatures also mean more thawing permafrost, which makes the soils move and collapse and puts infrastructure, like the Russian fuel tank, increasingly at risk.
      The world is fraught with dangers for which we could have and should have been more prepared. To that list, we need to add the Arctic's vulnerability to oil spills. We need the foresight, will, and investment to develop strategies and policies to minimize the costs and impacts of future spills -- to prepare effective responses now for inevitable oil spills in the Arctic, and not react futilely to them after they happen.