Nornickel ESG Insights
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Scientific Mission to the Arctic

In February, meetings were held with the community to present the results of, and follow up on the 2023 Great Scientific Expedition. This was the second stage of the large-scale study conducted by the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) supported by Nornickel. The meeting was attended by representatives of the Federation Council, Public Chamber, Ministry of Natural Resources, Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources, company employees and, of course, scientists.

Successful triumvirate

The report presentation was preceded by a discussion on the forms of cooperation between science and business. Nornickel’s successful experience proved interesting to the government and public authorities, as shown by the mix of meeting participants. But any government involvement requires clear terms of interaction. The first step towards establishing this system has been taken at the event.

Andrey Grachev, Nornickel Vice President for Federal and Regional Programs, and Valentin Parmon, Chairman of RAS Siberian Branch, welcomed the audience by video conference. Both of them recalled how Nornickel and RAS Siberian Branch officials were first introduced to each other. Over time, the relationship between the company’s employees and scientists has evolved into a trusting framework.

An idea has emerged to study the environmental impact of Nornickel’s operations on an ongoing basis and not by a particular instance. This is how the Great Scientific Expedition project started.

Over the four years, 280 scientists from 20 institutes of the RAS Siberian Branch have taken part in six field research trips. They studied the flora and fauna on an area covering 53,000 square kilometers. The Great Scientific Expedition became the largest in the history of the RAS Siberian Branch since 1957.
Nornickel Vice President for Federal and Regional Programs

“None of this would have happened without the triumvirate — an alliance between science, government and business. The results are incredible. Scientists provide recommendations that underlie our environmental programs. The scientific community often complains of being unheard. We hear and use the inputs supplied to us by scientists. We are absolutely committed to advancing fundamental science at Nornickel!"

Tatyana Sakharova, Russian Federation Senator of the Murmansk Region, stressed that the company has set a high standard in cooperation between science and business for the sake of preserving the environment.

A great example was given by Olga Klever, Deputy Director of the Information and Analytical Center for the Support of Nature Conservation with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. She spoke about Nornickel’s assistance in the polar bear census.
The species were counted in their ‘birthing homeland’ – on the Wrangel and Bear Islands using Russian-made Orlan drones. The data was then processed using an AI technology.
At the initiative of the Natural Resources Ministry, the Business and Biodiversity project was created. Nornickel is an active participant. 10 commercial companies have already launched environmental projects, underlining that a good example is the best sermon.

Natalia Dorpeko, Executive Director of the UN Global Compact National Network Russia, explicitly asked Nornickel to become the platform bringing together all Russian businesses to deliver environmental projects. In Russia, businesses do a lot to protect the environment, but it is important that the whole world knows about it. In the current geopolitical context, this will help support the reputation of Russian business and its competitiveness.
USD 7 tn,
or 7% of global GDP, was spent in 2023 on operations harmful for the environment. To compare, investments in environmental protection technologies totaled USD 200 bn.
An important topic was raised by Amirkhan Amirkhanov, Deputy Head of the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources. He proposed removing barriers between business and the government, and discontinuing the practice of charity to the scientific community for preserving biodiversity: Nornickel’s experience proves that environmental projects can be embedded in the company’s economic strategy. And this is the kind of an example that needs to be spread domestically and abroad.

Nornickel Vice President for HSE

“Science requires constant, long-term investments, while charity is not a way to guarantee them. We support the idea of mandatory assistance to science in the field of environment. And regardless of the size, all businesses should be engaged. This means that the government should come into the foreground, and not some company.

Nornickel is always ready to share the experience of its people and the organisation. When we started the Great Scientific Expedition, there was a lot of skepticism, but we moved on against all odds. Two years into the journey, Nornickel is not going to stop. Scientists are advancing their biodiversity study in the regions where Nornickel has a presence, using all the more innovative methods. We encourage such studies to be carried out on a national scale.”

Discoveries and challenges

The results of the Great Scientific Expedition are impressive. They were consolidated into three volumes of the Biodiversity Atlas of Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecosystems in the Area of the Company’s Operations, currently being prepared for publication by the RAS Siberian Branch.

This now gives scientists the green light to publish their research in international scientific journals (the data have to be collected for more than one year), as proudly reported by Viktor Glupov, project manager, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Director of the Institute of Systematics and Ecology of Animals with the RAS Siberian Branch.

He spoke about the task complexity and the importance of the discoveries made by scientists. The main purpose of the research is to assess the impact of Nornickel’s operations on biodiversity and update the boundaries of their negative environmental effects. But in addition to human activity, there are other factors, such as climate change, cyclic dynamics in animal and plant populations, and natural anomalies. So far, the observation period is not long enough to separate one from the other. The research will continue.

Integral ecosystem state indicator. Scientists were able to get a true picture owing to their own invention – the Integral Ecosystem State Indicator (IESI). The method is still being refined, but it has already attracted attention from the professional community, including Rospotrebnadzor. To calculate the IESI, a background impact area is identified, where the ecosystem is considered healthy according to four research parameters. The background state is assumed at 1; the impact in other areas is estimated by a special formula linked to the background value.
The IESI below 0.8 is already a signal to look for possible negative impacts and their causes. The highest impact is usually recorded 3-5 km from the plant, while generally the environmental effects can spread to 10-15 km. 30 km from the site, the effects are assessed as insignificant, often blending with the background conditions, and then the background itself. The main negative factors include landscape disturbance, when soil is stripped by a bulldozer, liquid and aerosol pollutants, and noise.

Adaptability breaks the pattern. In total, during the 2023 expedition, scientists have studied 1,524 species of living organisms and observed that in many cases their habitat locations do not follow an obvious pattern. The reason is the species’ ability to adapt to environmental conditions. For example, soil mites, oribatids and springtails are highly sensitive to any impact and die immediately. Their number is a clear indication of the soil pollution level.

In contrast, the Curtonotus alpinus beetle surprised the scientists. In the background impact zone, its population was minimal, while in the area of high operational impact, the beetles actively reproduced. These insects love open landscapes but were able to adapt to the harmful environments.

Another paradox example is the rise in roe deer and hare populations near the plants. These animals are highly sensitive to noise, but they have grown used to it for significant benefits. They found themselves in a protected area where hunting is prohibited. In addition, the roadside is densely overgrown with shrubs offering food and shelter for hares and roe deer.
Anomaly-driven adaptability. Scientists attribute the high adaptability of some species to specific Arctic phenomena. In many locations, they have found natural anomalies: exposed rock with high arsenic and cadmium content formed during the Ice Age. The biological systems may have adapted to such impacts. But this issue needs to be studied further.

During the 2023 Great Scientific Expedition, scientists have discovered several new species, including myxomycetes and Synapion Sp. Nov. weevil beetle. The name of the new beetle species was found in a team effort: a naming contest was held among Norilsk residents and company employees who proposed hundreds of options. By vote, the new beetle species was named Putoranchik.
The Putorana Plateau Nature Reserve is now inscribed in biological taxonomy.

Lessons learned from the Expedition

In 2023, the Great Scientific Expedition studied biodiversity in 32 water bodies in areas of Nornickel’s operations. They paid special attention to the mouth of the Ambarnaya River, which suffered the most harm from the 2020 accident. As scientists predicted back then, the spill of petroleum products into the water did not lead to declines in biodiversity which turned out to be quite high. The report on the water body study findings presented by Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, PhD of Biological Sciences, Chief Researcher of the Biophysics Institute with the RAS Siberian Branch Mikhail Gladyshev came as a surprise to the participants.

There can be an excess biomass in water bodies. When water gets contaminated with oil, it produces both negative and positive effects. Oil stimulates the growth of zooplankton reproducing actively in the petroleum hydrocarbon environment. Zooplankton is a food source for small fish, which, in turn, are eaten by predatory fish.

However, it’s not all roses. In the high impact industry zone, the growth of zoo- and phytoplankton in water bodies exceeded the background rates by 2-5 times. Supervisors could have rewarded Nornickel for record-high numbers in contrast to the companies fined for aquatic biomass decline. However, scientists think different. With increasing pathogenic plankton populations, the diversity of fish declines significantly. The first to disappear are rare species, for example, the unique Putorana char. Following the 2018 research, this Arctic fish was recognized as the most valuable in the world by nutrients content. It contains the record-setting amount of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that protect against cardiovascular disease.

Lakes prove resilient to the effects of Nornickel’s operations. Only two of the 13 lakes studied during the Expedition exhibited water acidification – a common consequence of pollution from mining waste. The pH level, or the acid-base balance, in the lakes has even increased compared to 2022. By 0.1–0.2%, but still, an increase. This may be attributed to reduced human impact or a natural biological process of self-purification. To understand, the research must be continued.

Biodiversity can be assessed by ecosystem DNA. All data on fish biodiversity were obtained by the scientists of the Great Scientific Expedition mainly with the help of standard fishing gear, i.e. gillnets. But science is not a finished book. Last year, a new method was used for the first time – molecular genetic study of ecosystem DNA. It was not included in Nornickel’s terms of reference, but the scientists have many times stressed during the hearings that Nornickel greenlighted a wide range of their initiatives. This approach was repaid a hundredfold.
In 2023, the Expedition used a new method for the first time - molecular genetic DNA study of ecosystem inhabitants.
Lake Vetrenoye is located in the zone of medium impact of the company’s operations. To study its population composition, scientists have put 55 meters of gillnets, as usual. After 15 hours, they were found empty, which meant that the lake had to be recognized as fishless from human impact. This is where the experiment kicked in: DNA tests were performed on the fragments of this ecosystem’s inhabitants. The test revealed that the lake was abundant in living organisms and was home to valuable fish species: whitefish and sticklebacks. Work continues to enhance the technique, which will soon replace the outdated nets.

Expedition findings help restore ecosystems. The findings obtained during the Expedition will underlie the practical actions to restore the river and lake ecosystems. They seek to improve the quality and quantity of fish caught. This is especially important for the indigenous peoples of the North, since fish form the basis of their traditional diet.

The chemical composition of plants reflects the ecosystem condition. Scientists also shared other plans for the future. In the near term, they will develop simple and reliable criteria for assessing the ecosystem condition. For example, by chemical composition of leaves. If it is clearly established how the composition is affected by the environment, it will be easy to identify threats. You take a leaf, determine its chemical composition and understand the external influences.

Microbiology will help in land reclamation. Scientists plan to further study soils, animals, and plants. This will bring research to a new level, which will produce practical results in the field of land reclamation and enrichment.

The data obtained by scientists will underlie Nornickel’s corporate system of biodiversity impact management and will be used to develop the biodiversity conservation and monitoring programs.


“Managing biodiversity is a lengthy process which requires systemic action and a science-based approach. The Great Scientific Expedition in 2023 has confirmed or disproved the theories and hypotheses put forth at stage one. At this point, research findings suggest consistency of results. The work must be continued so that the company has science-based certainty of actions required to maintain biodiversity and minimize the environmental impact of our operations.”

Photos by Nornickel
March, 2023
Environment Russia Biodiversity