As climate change alters the Arctic landscape, shrinking the ice cover on sea and land, it opens up more of the region to resource exploitation.

On Sept. 16, the ice cover in the Arctic Ocean reached the record for the smallest area since satellite tracking began.

For decades, Russia has been the pioneer in Arctic development, and it continues to forge ahead.

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Scientists say sea ice in the Arctic shrank to an all-time low on Sept. 16, at least since satellite records began in 1979. This image shows the amount of summer sea ice in the Arctic on Sept. 16, at center in white, and the 1979 to 2000 average extent for the day shown, with the yellow line. The 2012 record is 49 per cent smaller than the 1979-2000 average. (U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center/Associated Press)

Some of the consequences of that development can be gleaned from a Russian government report that outlines its program for protecting the Russian Arctic Environment.

"The concentration of heavy metals in soils, plants, and animals, in water and snow, in sea ice and bottom sediments is increasing nearly everywhere" according to the report, released in 2009, with an English edition.

In the Arctic Ocean, "Many marine expanses of the Barents, White, Kara, and Laptev seas hold concentrations of pollutants that exceed maximum allowable concentrations two or three times over."

The report describes how oil pollution in Russia's Arctic basin has reached high levels. "Every year several hundred thousand tones of petroleum products are transported by rivers into the Arctic seas.

"Severe pollution of surface waters has been found beyond the boundaries of oil- and gas-bearing deposits and even the basins of the rivers flowing into the Arctic seas."

Even so, the report states that despite hotspots, the Russian "Arctic remains relatively clean."

Started with Stalin

Development of the Russian Arctic pre-dates the arrival of the oil and natural gas industry, beginning in the 1930s as government policy under dictator Joseph Stalin.

Elana Wilson Rowe, editor and co-author of the book, Russia and the North, told CBC News those first decades of development were helped by Stalin's "gulag system that brought a lot of labour, against their will, to the north."

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Elana Wilson Rowe of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs says 'Russians see the Arctic as a place they can engage as a leading power.' (Courtesy Elena Wilson Rowe)

The government wanted a populated north, and so that was an economic goal. When the Soviet Union began to collapse in 1989, there were nearly 10 million people in the Russian north. The economic chaos and liberalization that followed led to a major migration south. By 2006, one-sixth of the population had left the region.

In the hardest-hit regions of Chukotka, nearly 74 per cent of people left, and in Magadan, out-migration was over 57 per cent.

Wilson Rowe explained that after 1989, "costs went up, collapsing some of the important transport networks and it no longer worked to maintain so many settlements." Census takers arrived to find ghost towns.

However, in some northern areas, especially ones with oil or natural gas development, populations increased and today, "parts of the Russian far north are booming," Wilson Rowe said.

Putin pushes northern development

In this century, the combination of rising oil prices and the return to an authoritarian and nationalist regime under Vladimir Putin have led to a renewed push for northern development.

Wilson Rowe is now at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs in Oslo, but also lived in Iqaluit for about six months in 2003-2004. She has analyzed the Arctic policy of the five Arctic countries and notes that in their documents, "only Canada and Russia mention this idea of being an Arctic power."

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This drilling rig at the Val Gamburtseva oil fields in Russia's Arctic region is owned by state oil company Rosneft. On April 4, 2006 a brand-new pipeline threads off over the icy horizon behind the rig. (Misha Japaridze/Associated Press)

Then she adds, laughing, about the country of her birth, "I guess the United States doesn't have to mention that."

For Russia, she says, "the emphasis over the last four years has been on economic opportunity, political opportunity, seeing the Arctic as a place where there can be a win-win type of political experience where Russia can positively take the lead and live up to the image it has of itself as a great power."

Russia's policy goal is for the Arctic to become its primary resource base by 2020.

Deteriorating living conditions for indigenous population

There are two overlapping economies in the north: the rural economy of the native population – with 39 recognized ethnic groups – engaging in traditional activities and the much larger economy of the non-native, mostly Russian population working in extractive industries and supporting activities.

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An elderly Nenets reindeer herder sits on his sled among the buildings of the Val Gamburtseva oil fields in Russia's Arctic region, April 4, 2006. (Misha Japaridze/Associated Press)

The result: "The hunting grounds of the native peoples have been made accessible to newcomers by the development of transportation facilities and are taken for mining and industrial development," says the government report.

"Many northern rivers have lost their significance as fisheries because of pollution, the destruction of spawning areas, and poaching."

The report identifies the deteriorating living conditions of the indigenous population as a high-priority problem because of "high levels of contamination at drinking water intakes, poorer air quality in populated areas, waste strewn about haphazardly, etc."

Vladimir Chuprov, 42, has experienced all this first-hand. He's from the Komi indigenous group, born in Komi Republic, which is south of the Barents Sea. He grew up in Pechora, a town on the Pechora River, which is the third largest in Europe, measured by discharge. It drains into the Arctic.

In the area of Komi where he's from, people rely on hunting and fishing, along with some reindeer herding. Some areas along the Pechora are among the regions of the Russian north that have the highest levels of heavy metal contamination.

World's worst oil polluter

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Where oil has leaked, fir trees look as though scorched by wildfire. This oil spill is near Usinsk, Komi Republic, in 2011. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

Leakage from oil pipelines is a long-standing problem in Komi. One of the worst on record was in the Usinsk in 1994, resulting in a spill of 100,000 to 350,000 tons of oil-containing fluids that badly affected three rivers, including the Pechora, and resulted in a dramatic decrease in fish stock.

"Seen from a helicopter, the oil production area is dotted with pitch-black ponds," Associated Press reported from Usinsk in 2011, while trees "look as though scorched by a wildfire."

Chuprov now lives in Moscow, but told CBC News that his "brothers and sisters are living with this oil and they know what oil means." He said that Komi is famous for its environmental movement, especially attempts to save the Pechora.

After military service in the Russian Navy, Chuprov earned an environmental studies degree and by 1994 he was volunteering with Greenpeace Russia. Four years later he was on staff and since 2000 he has headed their energy program.

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Greenpeace's Vladimir Chuprov, at a drained thermokarst lake on Yamal peninsula in northern Russia in 2009. A thermokarst lake, also called a thaw lake or cave-in lake, is a body of freshwater, usually shallow, that is formed in a depression by meltwater from thawing permafrost. Steve Morgan/Greenpeace (Steve Morgan/Greenpeace)

A 2012 report for Greenpeace that Chuprov co-authored looks at the results of "decades of irresponsible exploitation of Russia’s mainland oil and gas fields, including the Arctic portion, by oil and gas companies with an exceptional disregard to safety and environmental protection."

In August, a conference of Arctic indigenous peoples hosted in Komi called for a moratorium on onshore oil drilling in the Arctic and a ban on all offshore oil drilling on the Arctic shelf.

On Sept. 20, the U.K. House of Commons' Environmental Audit Committee issued a major report on the Arctic and also called for "a moratorium on drilling in the Arctic."

Russia is easily the worst oil polluter in the world. Greenpeace estimates there's an average of about  20,000 oil spills each year, mostly from corroded pipelines, totalling five million tons of crude oil and petroleum products released into the environment annually. Some Russian government estimates put the amount even higher. (In the U.S., an average of about 15,000 tons of oil is spilled annually, and in Canada about 7,700, according to the Associated Press.)

In northern Russia, no real rehabilitation takes place in areas with oil spills, the Greenpeace report states.

A 2010 report commissioned by the Russian government estimates that 500,000 tons of that spilled oil makes its way into rivers in northern Russia and then ends up in the Arctic Ocean.

Next: offshore drilling

Russia's plans to drill for oil in the Arctic seas worry Chuprov. "Expanding to offshore would mean expanding this negative practice" in the north that he has documented.

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Greenpeace activists board Gazprom's Arctic oil platform Prirazlomnaya in the Pechora Sea on Aug. 24. The activists, including Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo, said they were protesting oil drilling in the Arctic. Naidoo said 'the Arctic is the defining environmental challenge of our time.' (Denis Sinyakov/Greenpeace/Associated Press)

Gazprom, the Russian oil giant, is the first Russian company to drill for oil in the Arctic. Greenpeace has called on Gazprom to abandon its drilling plans over safety concerns. With production expected to begin later this year at Gazprom's sole Arctic rig, in the Pechora Sea, Greenpeace activists boarded the platform in August. The protest lasted about 15 hours.

On Sept. 21, Reuters reported that Gazprom will delay the start of production. "Work won't start until the company can ensure complete safety," a source told Reuters. Gazprom declined to make an official comment. Production is expected to begin about a year from now.

Gazprom had announced on August 29 that it was postponing  development of the Shtokman natural gas project in the Barents Sea because it is too expensive.

Russian energy companies have signed partnership agreements with Shell, ExxonMobil, Total and Statoil for their Arctic offshore plans.

Nevertheless, "There isn't any effective equipment deployed in the Arctic that can handle an oil in ice spill," says Lars-Otto Reiersen, executive secretary of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP), which is affiliated to the multi-nation Arctic Council.

Reiersen says the conditions – darkness for half the year, cold, strong winds, fog – pose huge challenges for dealing with a spill.

"It could be a long time before a spill is even noticed," according to the U.K. committee report.

Existing equipment "is designed to operate in clean, open sea but not ice," Reiersen says. If you have ice, it will take the booms and skimmers because it's much stronger.

Another method is to burn the spilled oil, but it's difficult to get crude oil to burn in temperatures under zero degrees Centigrade.

Pollution from outside Russia a big problem

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Lars-Otto Reiersen of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program says science and industry have not found an effective method to deal with an oil spill that could result from offshore drilling in the Arctic. (Inger Utne/AMAP)

Oil pollution is not the only environmental problem in the Russian north, and there have been some recent environmental successes, like the clean-up of the Arctic-based Soviet nuclear submarine program  and the removal and cleanup of old pesticides. 

A lack of adequate controls at many smelters in the Russian north means huge emissions of heavy metals and sulfur is still happening, leaving a dead zone in "elliptic areas around the smelters, depending on the wind directions," Reiersen said.

Despite all that, Reiersen stresses that Russia itself is not the main source of pollution in the Russian north. It’s the wind-borne transport of mercury persistent organic pollutants and industrial chemicals from all over the world, especially Asia.

Reiersen explained that these pollutants then accumulate in the food chain and especially the food sources for indigenous people.

"From our perspective, that is the main challenge for the Arctic ecosystem and humans."