by Valeria Kolodezhna
Translated by Nick Müller & Jennifer Castner
Contaminated Ukrainian soils are now estimated in millions of hectares. The figure is imprecise, and assessment of their condition is incomplete. However, today, even while the war is ongoing, crop production represents 30% of the country’s GDP. Researchers are studying post-military action soil conditions in Ukraine as urgently as possible for economic reasons, but only environmental considerations make it possible to weigh and rationally choose a plan for further actions. In this article, we consider the results of a study presented by the Ecodia Center for Environmental Initiatives on the impact of hostilities on soils in individual Ukrainian communities. Ecodia brings together experts and activists to influence environmental conservation decision-making.
Safety regulations shape soil scientists’ work in wartime. Today, roughly 40% of Ukraine’s territory (which is larger than the UK) is covered in minefields. On average, it takes one day to clear one hectare of mines. Therefore, scientists rely now more than ever on geographic information technology: satellite imagery and their analysis.
The extent of the destruction caused by shelling from Grad rocket launchers (actively used by the Russian armed forces) is dramatically greater than the impact of military fortifications. Grads can blanket an area of 8–9 hectares in just 20 seconds. Nevertheless, such built factors must also be taken into account in the analysis, as they too directly affect the structure and thus the fertility of soils.
What do troop maneuvers and heavy equipment mean for soil?
As shown in Figure 1, destruction of soil structure can be visible to the naked eye, occurring in the form of soil compaction.
Soil is a rather well-organized ecosystem that can be described as hierarchical: genetic horizons (layers) of soil, usually lying horizontally, correspond to the date of their formation. For example, T-64 tanks (which the Russian military actively uses in its war against Ukraine) weigh almost fifty metric tons (38-45.5 tons) each. Under the pressure of such weight, normal connections between soil particles are lost, and structure along with hierarchy is destroyed.
Soil compaction limits the ability of plants to adapt to climate change, arid conditions, and insufficient moisture. These influences become really dangerous only in the case of repeated passage by heavy tracked vehicles along well-trodden paths. The problem is especially acute in high humidity environments.
On the basis of data monitoring of the ground compaction caused by M1A1 Abrams battle tanks in Kansas, compacted Ukrainian soils could also potentially recover within a few years (if left dormant).
Large fires and their effects on soils
The effects of fire caused by military combat are visible in the Chornobyl exclusion zone. Since 24 February 2022, fires have swept through Chornobyl’s forests, burning an area of roughly 22,000 hectares. This analysis is provided by Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group and is based on European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) data.
What do such fires mean for soil? Fire usually depletes and harms necessary water infiltration from deep within subsoil horizons. Humus content in a key area of Kyiv Oblast (within the Chornobyl exclusion zone) decreased threefold as compared to the pre-war period.
Effects on soils from shelling
On a separate note, analyzing soil disturbances wreaked by explosions is worthwhile work. Usually it is visible to the naked eye: craters from multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) shelling near Izyum in Kharkiv Oblast have been seen around the entire world. In a June 2022 article, UWEC Work Group experts assessed the approximate density of destruction of a single sq km of land by ammunition.
Munitions debris, explosive components, and reaction byproducts all mixed with soil at the bottom of the crater, and other debris scatters the area. Chemical contamination of the soil was documented within a five-meter radius of craters (created by MLRS munitions), and mechanical parts were flung up to (only fragments where found) 120 meters distant.
The first phase of the study determined the time frame for military operations and site identification, in other words, damage mapping. Hostilities were tracked using data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a resource that enabled determination of the study’s time period. Researchers identified affected areas during this phase, with an additional step to classify areas by factors and types of impact.
Based on an analysis of crater density and munitions characteristics, Ukrainian soil scientists conducted a comprehensive assessment of the extent of soil damage in two pilot communities: Vilhivska in the Kharkiv region and Sartanska in the Donetsk region. Fires and shelling are perhaps the largest damage factors among those identified.
In most of the affected areas, fragment litter was the predominant issue, rather than soil structure damage (Fig. 2). Consequently, in some cases, a cleanup process is sufficient to restore the area. In areas with increased damage, special cleansing measures are required, and in cases of severe contamination, scientists recommend temporary closure, leaving the site temporarily fallow for a period of self-recovery.
Remediation: Special cleanup measures for soils
The study’s soil scientists recommended a number of remediation technologies.
For areas of moderate damage, the biological cleaning methods – phytoremediation and phytoextraction – selected are far from the cheapest, but are relatively natural technologies. They involve on-site cultivation of special plants capable of dissolving or absorbing pollutants. Subsequently, absorbed heavy metals are removed from the site along with the sorbent plant. The process is similar to the work of activated carbon, a substance used in cases of poisoning.
Various types of plants can be used to remove various heavy metals such as (Pb, Ni, Cr, Zn, etc.) from the soil. Those mentioned in the report include common crops such as sunflower and spring rapeseed. However, it should be noted that subsequent use of such crops in the food industry after completing remediation is strictly prohibited.
Desertification and the war’s role in it
Threats of unexploded ordnance and contamination with heavy metals that can enter the human body are motivating factors that influence the study of soil pollution and use of cleanup methods. But from a strategic perspective, less obvious global impacts of soil degradation should also be taken into account. The most urgent of them is desertification.
The classical meaning of desertification (according to the UN Convention on Desertification) defines the process as the “ degradation of land in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas for various reasons, including climatic fluctuations and human activity”.
Ukraine, as a country in the temperate climate zone, should not fall into the risk zone, given the relative locations of Ukraine and “arid territories” (receiving from 5 to 65% of water from atmospheric evaporation and transpiration). However, examining the aridity index on a map (Fig. 3) more closely, the threat of desertification does not seem as far away as it did initially.
The most active combat during the Russian invasion of Ukraine occurs in the east and south of the country. This area is the nation’s most arid region, as well as possessing the most fertile soils – the chernozem area. This area was already the most vulnerable to climate change due to insufficient rainfall, but now there is also the issue of millions of hectares of land that are losing their fertility as a result of the war.
Unfortunately, military operations are not the only anthropogenic factor accelerating desertification processes in southern and eastern Ukraine. According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, six million hectares of agricultural land required restoration as early as 2021, prior to the start of the full-scale war, mainly in southern Ukraine. The reason for this is expanding crop farming against a backdrop of an already very high degree of land cultivation (56.8% of the country).
With sustainable planning measures for soil reclamation and restoration, it is possible to change the situation and halt the desertification process.
At the beginning of 2022, the Ukrainian government approved a method for calculating soil damage resulting from emergency situations and/or armed aggression and fighting. Research in this direction has not ceased, and now the Department of Environmental Safety and Mine Action within Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense is developing its own method, with some projects proposed by the National Academy of Agrarian Sciences of Ukraine. That said, analytical phases for studying military combat consequences for soils are best presented in Ecodia Center for Environmental Initiatives’s study “Land pollution as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine”, in collaboration with and presented by Anastasia Sploditel.
The study focuses on the level of the hromada, Ukraine’s smallest territorial division, similar to a municipality. After all, it is most likely that hromadas will be entrusted with the task of quantifying losses, developing restoration plans, and implementing specific measures for damaged land reclamation.
This study cannot be interpolated across the rest of Ukraine. The assessment of a wide range of threats points to the conclusion that land restoration plans must be unique for each community. At the same time, the research methodology can be applied universally across Ukraine, and that work lies ahead. With well-chosen solutions and financing, Ukraine will be able to leverage soil pollution solutions in planning measures to combat desertification, one of humankind’s biggest climate challenges.
Main image source: Andriy Dubchak/RadioSvoboda.org