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Arctic river turns blood red in new images of Russia's 20,000-ton fuel spill

Russia declared a state of emergency after the massive spill from a power plant storage tank.

ESA's Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites monitor Earth. The mission caught sight of the diesel fuel spill near Norilsk in Sibera in early June.

Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2020), processed by ESA

A diesel fuel spill in the Arctic Circle is so massive a satellite was able to see it turn wide swaths of a river into a dark shade of red.

Russia has declared a state of emergency as clean-up work is underway near the Russian city of Norilsk in Siberia. The 20,000 tons of fuel leaked from a storage tank at a thermal power plant owned by Norilsk Nickel. 

The European Space Agency's Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission captured startling views of the scene. ESA released a GIF on Friday showing an image from before the May 29 spill contrasted with images from May 31 and June 1. The Ambarnaya River goes from a greenish-brown to crimson red where the diesel fuel is present.

"The accident was caused by a sudden sinking of supporting posts in the basement of the storage tank," Norilsk Nickel reported earlier in the week. The company suggested abnormally warm temperatures caused the ground permafrost under the tank to thaw. 

Thawing of Arctic permafrost is a growing concern. A 2018 NASA study looked at the impact of a warming climate on permafrost in the northern Arctic and researchers called for close monitoring of changes in the region.

The views from closer to the ground are just as startling as the images from space. WWF-Belgie tweeted photos of the blood-red river water on Wednesday.

Workers are removing contaminated soil and pumping fuel from the Ambarnaya River, which connects to a major lake.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Arctic Programme said the spill threatens fish, birds and a herd of wild reindeer in the area. "Stopping further spread is important, but the toxic elements will still be in the river and the lake. A spill like this should not have happened in the first place," said WWF-Russia's Aleksey Knizhnikov in a statement on Thursday.