The Van Trump Report

Will Russia’s War in Ukraine Leave a “Toxic Legacy” in the Soil?

Ukraine is often described as the “breadbasket of Europe” thanks to its high-quality soils and significant agricultural output. The country has close to 104 million acres of agricultural land, of which more than 75% is typically cultivated, making it one of the most highly cultivated countries in the world. Russia’s invasion has inflicted a devastating human toll and created numerous disruptions to Ukraine’s farm sector. But as more farmland gets swept up in the fighting, the soil itself is at threat of long-lasting damage that could take decades to repair.

Around two-thirds of Ukraine’s agricultural land is comprised of “chernozem,” which describes a black-colored soil containing a high percentage of humus (4% to 16%) and high percentages of phosphorus and ammonia compounds. This very fertile land is known for its high agricultural yields and superior moisture storage capacity.

The Ukrainian government has asked the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to help it assess the environmental damage. According to UNEP, physical soil pollution occurs when heavy machinery compacts the soil, when explosions create craters and disrupt the temperature, or when fires directly damage ecosystems. While the full extent of the damage can’t be known until the conflict is over, preliminary monitoring suggests that Ukraine’s land could be left with a “toxic legacy for generations to come.”  

In the Kharkiv region, which Ukraine recaptured last September, soil samples found high concentrations of toxins such as mercury and arsenic. The toxins come from a constant barrage of munitions and missiles, as well as fuel and lubricants from military vehicles. The destruction of chemical and waste storage facilities is contributing to pollution as well. UNEP has also pointed out the contamination risks from depleted uranium found in armor-piercing shells and tank armor. According to UNEP, once weapons hit the ground, they often remain buried so uranium takes decades to dissolve into the soil.

What’s more, areas that are heavily mined are so scarred by deep craters that experts doubt they can ever be put back into production. “It’s not just chemical; it’s physical, biological too,” according to Ganga Hettiarachchi, a soil chemist at Kansas State University. The use of heavy machinery and equipment can compact the soil and damage the ecosystem of microbes living within it, even without chemical contamination, according to Hettiarachchi.  

There is actually a word for the impacts of war on soil – bombturbation. The term was coined by Joseph Hupy, a soil geomorphologist at Purdue University, and colleague Randall Schaetzl back in 2006 while studying battlefield scars from WWI. According to Hupy, bombturbation excavates a volume of soil from the site of impact, forming a crater and spreading much of the ejecta out as a surrounding rim of mixed, but sometimes slightly sorted, debris.

At the WWI battlefield in Verdun, France, excavations revealed rubble and chunks of limestone bedrock embedded in a slurry of sandy soil and organics. In areas left with deep craters, water flow had completely changed, leading to new patterns of vegetation growth. Hupy says even if farmers smooth over the top of the soil, underground rubble can act like a barrier or sluice for water, making it harder to grow crops. Studies of other WWI battlefields have found the dirt contains elevated levels of copper and lead more than a century later.

The worst hit areas are in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine, which also had the most fertile soil, says Yevhenia Zasiadko, head of a Ukrainian group that is building a database documenting the environmental impacts of the war. “Harmful substances can migrate into the plants growing on that land, so food can become poison for those who consume it,” said Zasiadko. Those pollutants can also be extremely difficult to remove from the land. Some estimate it could take as long as two centuries to extract heavy metal contaminants from the soil through multiple harvests. Depending on the extent of contamination, some of the lands may never again be suitable for growing human food. (Sources: Soil Science, BBC, Science News, The Independent)

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