Updated: Jul 3, 2022
Before this political civilization came to its power and opened its hungry jaws wide enough to gulp down great continents of the earth, we had wars, pillages, changes of monarchy, and consequent miseries. But never such a sight of fearful and hopeless voracity, such wholesale feeding of nation upon nation, such huge machines for turning great portions of the earth into mincemeat, never such terrible jealousies with all their ugly teeth and claws ready for tearing open each other’s vitals. -- Rabindranath Tagore wrote in Nationalism, his 1917 book of essays
UKRAINE - The Country
Ukraine, the second-largest country in Europe, has a population of 40 million people. It has a rich and unique natural beauty with the largest canyon in Europe, a city where one navigates through water, steppes, high mountain lakes, and more. It has 11 national natural parks, 4 biosphere reserves, 16 nature reserves, numerous arboretums, 50 Ramsar sites, and a lot of monuments of landscape art.
Other than this, Ukraine also has bountiful reserves of:
Rare earth elements
Oil and gas which are majorly untapped
Mineral resources, especially iron, coal, titanium, lithium, and other non-metallic elements
Abundance of arable land
Ukraine runs 15 nuclear reactors, more than 1600 chemical, petrochemical and pharmaceutical enterprises, and 148 coal mines. It enjoys a competitive agriculture industry, energy, metallurgy, chemicals, and manufacturing industries, a fast developing high tech sector, and IT.
The map gives an idea of the scale and spread of industrial facilities in Ukraine. Wherever there are tailings storage facilities, there's bound to be an industry at that site.
A favourable climate and rich black soils help in high agricultural yields. Ukraine is a major exporter of wheat and corn.
Most of the country's electricity needs are met by hydroelectric and nuclear power plants. Ukraine is an exporter of electricity. It also has huge coal reserves, some of which are used in thermal power plants.
Ferrous metallurgy and machine building are the leading industries in Ukraine. The chemical industry operates in a single complex with metallurgy. The by-products of metallurgy and coke industries are used to produce varnishes, paints, nitrogen fertilizers, and medicines.
Ukraine is also the base for many global firms viz., Grammarly, Depositphotos, MacPaw, Petcube, Ajax Systems, etc.
The Russia-Ukraine War
The Russia-Ukraine war has been ongoing since February 2014. The war initially focused on Crimea and Donbas, internationally recognized as part of Ukraine, until the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. The war in Donbas (between Russian-backed separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics and Ukraine) had never ceased completely since 2014, and became full-blown on 24th February, 2022.
Donbas, the primary stage for the war, is nearly a 200-year-old portmanteau formed from 'Donetsky Bassein' (Donets coal basin). As can be understood from the name, the area is rich in coal reserves. The Donbas region also includes major population centers across four Ukrainian provinces (the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts), as well as one Russian province (the Rostov oblast).
The Donbas economy is dominated by heavy industries, such as coal mining, and metallurgy. Other industries in this region include blast furnace and steel-making equipment, railway freight cars, metal cutting machine tools, tunneling machines, agricultural harvesters and ploughing systems, railway tracks, mining cars, electric locomotives, military vehicles, tractors and excavators. You can also see from the tailings map that the Donbas region has a concentration of coal, metallurgical, and energy industries.
Pre-war environmental crisis of Ukraine
Even before the war, the long history of mining and industrial production in the Donbas region had resulted in the accumulation of environmentally risky sites that contain pollutants, ranging from heavy metal toxins in mining tailings to industrial chemical pollution. The Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine (MENR) had designated 4,240 sites as potentially hazardous before the present war, of which, 2,160 sites are deemed potentially explosive due to methane content, 24 are flagged due to radiation hazards, 909 are hydro-dynamically hazardous, and 34 are biohazardous . The MENR were actively monitoring and managing each of these sites, before the war, so that the environmental and health risks are mitigated.
However, as the conflicts started in 2014, monitoring, regulating, and managing the environmental impacts of around 900 active as well as inactive mines by MENR and other agencies have become next to impossible. Among these, about 200 mines are at risk of flooding due to seepage from groundwater aquifers and infiltrations. Before the war, MENR supervised groundwater pumping of about 2.2 billion litres of water to keep the mine shafts free from flooding.
This is because, a flooded mine can dissolve toxic contaminants — ranging from minerals that increase the salinity and hardness of water to toxic heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and arsenic to radioactive contamination—and introduce them at significantly higher concentrations into the surrounding ground and surface water. In the olden days, nuclear detonations were often used in the coal extraction process which resulted in creating irradiated debris. The flooding of mines may carry this irradiated debris to surface water, groundwater, or any other water body which it may come in contact with, which is an environmental as well as a health hazard.
Post-war since the monitoring, regulating, and managing of the mines have stopped, it has been found that the flooding of subsurface mines, and surface water contamination by flooded mine groundwater —
Has reduced the water quality throughout Donbas;
Has increased the radiation levels in three mines, exceeding the baseline in Donbas of 15 microrems per hour (mcR/h), where nuclear detonations had been conducted in the sub-surface in the past (the sites showed levels of radiation at 154 mcR/h, 152 mcR/h and 103 mcR/h);
Released methane and radon from subsurface mines, decreasing air quality in the vicinity of the mine. The trapped methane and other gas release have also exacerbated the occurrence of explosions and earthquakes as the gases tend to push out to the surface;
Has destabilized 9 billion cubic meters of horizontal tunnels throughout the Donbas, causing some 8,000 square kilometers of land above the mines to experience an average of 1.75 meters of subsidence.
Russia's full-blown invasion has exacerbated the region's (Donbas) crucial water infrastructure strain by further damaging canals, water treatment systems, filtration units, and water pipelines.
Also, as a heavily industrialized country, Ukraine already had a baseline of bad air and was already the worst air quality area in Europe.
FAST FACTS RELATED TO THE WAR
1. Weapons Used
The weapons that have been used in the Russia-Ukraine war are Phosphorous bombs, Kinzhal missiles, Iskander ballistic missiles, 'Vacuum' bombs, Cluster bombs, Warplanes, Javelin Missiles, Bayraktar TB2 drone, Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapon (NLAW), and Stinger Surface-to-Air Missile.
Cluster bombs and Vacuum bombs have been condemned by various international organizations because of their severity and hugely devastating effects on civilians and the use of these are considered war crimes.
According to Ukraine’s State Emergency Service (SES), from 24 February to 22 June 2022, 1,43,287 explosive devices, including 1,995 aircraft bombs, were neutralized in Ukraine. An area of 61,809 hectares was surveyed for explosives. - MENR
2. Weapons Composition
Whatever weapons are used in a war, the constituents mostly consist of heavy metals, energetic compounds like TNT, RDX, and other propellants (please refer to the table), which are highly dangerous, toxic, and hazardous to the environment. These compounds remain at the strike locations and also at the source of strikes and continue polluting the surrounding environment (the soil, water, air from the munition dust) and any habitat residing nearby.
3. Points of Attacks
14 Ramsar sites with an area of 397.7 thousand hectares in Ukraine are being used by Russian aggressors during hostilities against the Ukrainian people. More than 20 nature and biosphere reserves and national nature parks have suffered losses due to Russian aggression. (MENR)
Continuous shellings and missile attacks have hit the following spots at various locations in Ukraine:
Numerous oil depots
Thermal power plants
Military bases and ammunition depots
Civilian infrastructure, Commercial halls, Malls, Theatres, Markets
Food grain storage warehouses, agricultural fields, grain elevators
Water treatment facilities, water pipelines, treatment tanks, water storage tanks
Chemical industries (Nitric acid plant, Phenol Plant, Ammonia plants)
Bunker ships on Ukraine's coasts
Warehouses storing household goods and other chemicals
Lands and forests
Landfills (Solid waste dumpsites)
It is not difficult to fathom the disastrous consequences of these attacks on the environment (destroyed ecosystems, polluted soils and water, biodiversity losses), on people, and the long-term health effects. In addition to these, the unexploded weapons (which are also numerous in numbers) not only pose a risk to civilians if they explode unexpectedly, but also pose a threat to the environment by contaminating soil, water, or air over a longer duration.
According to Prof. Leila Sadat, a professor of international law at Washington University in St. Louis and a special adviser to the International Criminal Court prosecutor since 2012,
Ukraine could become a wasteland..
The Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine has been meticulously studying and reporting the environmental as well as humanitarian concerns of Ukraine both Pre-war as well as due to ongoing war. Several international organizations also have been monitoring Ukraine's environmental crisis over the years. Hence, there are numerous detailed studies and reports to be found regarding the environmental catastrophe that looms over Ukraine. [Please find links to some of those studies below]
You can also follow the following Twitter id for war updates and environmental concerns looming over Ukraine
Hence, I won't discuss how Russia's Ukraine invasion is leaving a toxic and battered landscape here, rather I would like to muse over the fact that how this war is accelerating the global warming rate.
Global Warming due to Russia-Ukraine War
Point to NOTE: Carbon Dioxide, and methane are major greenhouse gases (GHGs) followed by nitrous oxides, ozone, and some aerosols (SO2, NH3, etc.)
[To understand the cause of Global Warming, you can go through my previous post here]
Let's look into some specifics:
We've already read about the Russian aggression into 14 Ukrainian Ramsar sites and other nature and biosphere reserves without any concern for the environment.
Ramsar sites and Wetlands are the most effective carbon sinks on Earth. Loss and degradation of these wetlands and biosphere reserves would result in the emission of huge amounts of CO2
Indiscriminate attacks on Ukrainian soil have resulted in forests and grasslands catching fire. Also, while Russian resources and military are busy waging war against Ukraine, wildfires broke out in Siberia in early May. As Russian resources are more concentrated in the war, controlling the fire is not their primary goal. And this may result in a more long-lasting and intensive fire which spews more greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere if not brought under control.
Forests and grasslands act as carbon sequesters and carbon storers. The burning of forests and grasslands releases those stored carbons in the form of carbon dioxide
The Siberian forest consists of wild areas of peatlands and coniferous forests. As fires unleash through these forests they unleash more GHGs, methane, and carbon dioxide which have been stored in the permafrost for thousands of years.
As we've read before, the monitoring and regulating of the mines at Donbas by the assigned authorities have become impossible due to the war. This has caused flooding of the mines and uncontrolled methane leaks which are being forced out into the surface (due to the flooded mines), thus threatening to cause explosions and earthquakes.
Methane is a more potent GHG than carbon dioxide. Moreover, if it causes an explosion and catches fire it burns to form carbon dioxide.
Attack on grain storage and burning of grains further causes the release of CO2
Numerous fuel depots and fuel storage tanks have been hit on both Russian and Ukrainian sides simultaneously causing fire and intense smoke at those strike sites for days.
Military fuel, aviation fuel, or fuel for other purposes, all are composed of hydrocarbons which on combustion produce carbon dioxide
Natural gas pipelines in Ukraine have been hit by Russian forces causing wastage of non-renewable natural resources
Natural gas consists of methane and other hydrocarbons which are highly flammable. Leakages of these pipelines will emit methane gas which is a GHG. On catching fire these gases will be converted to carbon dioxide
Russia is the biggest exporter of oil and oil products to the European Union. Citing technical reasons (though world leaders consider it political) Russia has cut down gas supply to European countries. To cope with the energy crisis in the winter, many European countries are planning to restart their coal-fired power plants to boost their gas storage levels.
This move would trigger the production of more greenhouse gases as coal combustion releases carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxides, and other volatile organic compounds, all or most of which act as GHGs.
Hits on chemical industries like phenol plants, nitric acid plants, and ammonia plants have inevitably led to fire and toxic fumes from those plants
Phenol is a hydrocarbon that burns to produce CO2. Nitric acid and ammonia produce toxic fumes and nitrogen oxides. The atmosphere is not only filled with GHGs but also poisonous gases causing extreme air pollution.
Numerous ammunitions and military airplanes have been used by both parties in this ongoing war.
Fuel use from the operation of aircrafts and various military equipment adds to a huge amount of CO2 and other GHGs. Also, airplanes have strong warming (non-CO2) effects due to nitrogen oxides (NOx), vapour trails, and cloud formation triggered by the altitude at which they operate. These non-CO2 effects contribute twice as much to global warming as aircraft CO2
Also, surplus munitions and unexploded munitions are often destroyed by open detonation or burning which not only causes ground contamination but also generates toxic air pollutants and GHGs. Attack on munition depots also contributes to air pollution in a similar manner.
The movements of large convoys of Russian, as well as Ukrainian military vehicles, are burning through petrol. Steady arms supply to Ukraine through military vehicles or ramping up patrol via jets are burning up huge amounts of fuel. Jets use a huge amount of fuel and are the dirtiest emitters. All these fuel uses are adding to huge emissions of GHGs.
Russia's indiscriminate bombing has also caused shelling in landfills with the wastes catching fire.
Burning of Landfill or solid waste dump is also spewing various noxious fumes into the atmosphere along with GHGs
Russia's reckless attacks on Ukraine have flattened cities, and industrial locations by the destruction of vital infrastructure thus rendering millions of people homeless, organizations, commercial establishments, marketplaces, and industries non-functional.
Cleanup of these wreckages will require heavy machinery which operates by burning fuels thus adding more carbon emissions.
Reconstruction will require cement and other construction materials which themselves have a high carbon footprint as a result of the energy consumed during the extraction of raw materials, processing, and transportation of materials.
As power plants are hit, electricity generation is hampered and people have been switching over to diesel generators for power supply.
Diesel consists of a mixture of hydrocarbons which on combustion produces CO2, NOx, and other VOCs.
The firing of ammunitions, the fires throughout - the burning of forests, wastelands, buildings, oil tankers, and buildings, all generate an intense amount of heat that exceeds the capacity of the environment but is seldom talked about. What happens to these enormous amounts of anthropogenic heat?
Though the heat dissipates locally, it remains captive within the earth's atmosphere thus adding to the already existing heat! This heat influences the streamlines of airflow and its distribution thus delimiting itself from local effects and affecting the climate of the planet.
According to a study published in the Journal of the Meteorological Society of Japan, Anthropogenic Heat Release (AHR) can influence global zonal wind and atmospheric circulation. Since AHR can influence global atmospheric circulation, it can affect the global temperature and influence the climate further. And, this study didn't even take into account long-standing wars where the amount of AHR generated is multiple times higher than normal human activities. Thus it is evident that AHR from conflicts adds to global warming.
Note: AHR is the heat produced by human activities and spreads to the surrounding atmosphere.
Since World War I (1914-1918), the planet has seen the unleashing of an enormous amount of firepower. More destructive weapons were introduced and there has been an increase in the use of chemical weapons. As is evident from the global temperature graph, post-1914 there is an increase in the slope of the graph indicating a consistent increase in temperature with a marked increase in global temperatures during World War II (1939-1945). Post 1975, there has been unabated war activity in different regions of the world.
Intense anthropogenic heat as well as carbon emissions through the production and transport of military equipment, extensive testing of military equipment, and conflicts, have been among the major causes of human-induced global warming.
According to the recent IPCC report, to remain within the 1.5 deg. centigrade warming threshold, we not only need to accelerate the global transition to clean energy and reach 'zero emissions' as early as possible but also need to remove some amount of carbon that is already present in the atmosphere.
The incessant operations of the war machines over the past four months have been 'helping' in exacerbating global warming when de-carbonization efforts should be made at an accelerated rate with every passing day, thus compounding the climate crisis.
Won't we be saving ourselves by saving the planet?