The Canadian Arctic might be getting showered with trace amounts of poison thanks to Russian space launches which still employ a highly toxic fuel that most of the world has already phased out.
The fuel, known as UDMH, has already caused devastating pollution in areas close to former Soviet spaceports. And every time the Russian Federation launches a “Rokot” space vehicle, several tonnes of it might be getting dumped into Canadian waters.
“This dropping of the rocket stages is of considerable concern to the Inuit of Canada and Greenland, who only learned about the practice in 2016,” reads a recent report by University of British Columbia Arctic scholar Michael Byers in the journal Polar Record.
UDMH is used to power the first two stages of a “Rockot,” a civilian variant of a Russian nuclear-tipped missiles that is now used by Russia to launch satellites into orbit.
On occasions when these launches occur from Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome, the initial stages of the UR-100N are jettisoned into Arctic waters as the vehicle gains altitude.
According to Russia’s own alerts to aviation authorities, a June, 2016 launch saw a Rockot drop its second stage into a narrow stretch of water between Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island.
With unburned fuel aboard each stage, it’s possible that each launch is dropping as much as eight tonnes of UDMH, some of that fuel vaporizing and misting over Nunavut.
Byers noted that the Rockot stages are landing in the North Water Polynya, an area of year-round open water that is teeming with whales, seal, polar bears and seabirds.
“Given this concentration of biota, the North Water Polynya is an inappropriate location for dropping rocket stages with toxic residual fuel on-board,” reads the report.
UDMH was once used as a fuel by space and missile programs around the world, but has been gradually abandoned as its extreme toxicity became known.
A 2004 United Nations Development Programme report noted that the chemical is “dangerous in all methods of transmission to people.”
This has been most prevalent in the areas around the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Kazakhstani spaceport from which most of the former Soviet Union’s most renowned space launches occurred.
A 1999 report by Russia’s Union for Chemical Safety noted that UDMH was found around Baikonur “in vegetation, soil and sediments, subsoil and surface waters, at concentrations far in excess of those permissible according to the Russian hygienic standards.”
Around the same time, a health examination of 48,000 people in the vicinity of Baikonur found only 26.5 per cent of the adult population could be described as “healthy people.”
Russian death rates from blood and liver diseases have also found to be upwards of 30 per cent higher around Baikonur, although this has not been conclusively linked to UDMH contamination. Byers noted that mass die-offs of fish have also been observed in lakes under the flight paths of UDMH-burning rockets.
However, the ocean dumping of Rockot stages has not seemed to have bothered other countries whose borders are near to the drops.
Following a June, 2016 launch that saw the first stage of a Rockot jettisoned off the Norwegian coast, a Norwegian Defence Establishment official was quoted as saying that all residual fuel aboard would be quickly diluted by seawater.
Russia appears to be joining with space powers like the United States in phasing out UDMH, although launches of the UDMH-burning Rockot continue, likely due to the cheap availability of surplus UR-100N missiles, from which Rockots are converted.
The next Rockot launch is scheduled for October 13, when it will carry the Sentinel-5P, a European Space Agency probe designed to monitor air quality.
On Thursday, a press release from the Inuit Circumpolar Council demanded that the launch be postponed “while alternative, non-toxic launch options are pursued.”
“The environmental and health impacts of this action have not been studied in ocean waters and especially Arctic waters,” reads the statement signed by Inuit leaders from Greenland and Canada, including former Nunavut premier Eva Aariak.
Quelle: National Post