State of the Environment

State of terrestrial ecosystems

Although nowadays the emissions are lower than in the 1980’s, the measured sulfur dioxide concentrations in the Nikel area are still above the critical level for sensitive biota.

Both wet and dry sulphur deposition have been found to damage and destroy vegetation. The impact of emissions is observed in higher concentrations of copper and nickel, for example, in the leaves of bilberries, birches, and in the pine conifer. The same phenomenon is more obvious when heavy metals’ concentrations are measured in mosses and lichens. In the vicinity of the smelting shop the concentrations of toxic agents have increased over the ten years of monitoring.

Due to the prevailing wind directions, emissions have the worst impact on the areas north of the plant. The worst damage to the ecosystem is observed in the immediate vicinity of the pollution source and is gradually lowered as the distance to the plant grows. Like other Arctic regions, the border area is also subject to long-range transboundary air pollution.

Forest condition

Amount of needles and leaves, changes in growth of the forest and the color of tree crowns describe the health and vitality of forest cover. In addition to air pollutants, changing climate and different insect or fungal infestations strain forests. In the area of Lake Inarijärvi-River Paatsjoki health of the forest cover has been evaluated using pine and birch.

The effects of industrial pollutants are showing clearly in the most contaminated areas around Nikel smelter where the crowns of pine trees have become sparser. The condition of the crown depicts overall vitality of the tree. For example the density of needles can be used as parameter for crown condition. Measurements made in the years 2003-2005 indicated that state of pine crowns is better in test plots of Norway (amount of needles >90%) than in test plots of Russia (amount of needles <80%) which endure high amount of pollutants.

A period of monitoring carried out in the years 2011–2013 indicated that the concentrations of heavy metals have increased in pine needles, compared to the earlier monitoring period of 2003-2005. The distance from the Nikel smelter affects the concentration critically. Concentrations are also higher in the direction of prevailing winds.

Sulphur dioxide also has a negative impact on photosynthesis. The efficiency of photosynthesis can be measured with portable instruments. The leaves of birches and bilberries in the vicinity of the smelting shops have been noticed to grow extraordinarily slowly.

In the crowns of deciduous trees, for example, birches, the emissions’ impact is not as obvious. Birches lose their leaves annually, disposing of the harmful substances on the leaves.

Ground vegetation

Mosses and lichens growing on the forest floor usually live for many years, and they receive most of their nutrients from rainfall and snowmelt. This makes them extremely effective accumulators of heavy metals. The measurement results since 2000 have shown an increase of heavy metals’ concentrations as compared to 1990’s. The worst situation is in immediate vicinity of the smelter. In addition to that, very high concentrations of heavy metals were measured from mosses in the direction of prevailing winds.

The vegetation in this area has become poorer and the mosses and lichens most sensitive to pollution have decreased. The ground-covering plants also suffer from intense pollution; small shrubs have begun to prevail in the undergrowth. Many small scrubs endure the pollution by heavy metals and other toxic agents better than other plant groups. At the same time, sensitive reindeer lichens, red-stemmed feather-moss (Pleurozium schreberi) and liverworts are absent around the smelter. Lichens gradually become more common in less and less polluted areas and they prevail in the undergrowth of areas free of industrial impact.

Even though undergrowth around the smelter has been destroyed, some, especially pioneer, species of mosses and lichens are recovering in Russian test plots nearby Nikel.

Epiphytic lichens

Epiphytic lichens growing on the surface of the tree trunks and branches are sensitive indicators of atmospheric pollution, especially by sulfur compounds. Hypogymnia physodes and Melanelia olivacea are typical lichens growing on the birch trunks in this area.

Epiphytic lichens are absolutely absent in the heavily contaminated territories close to the smelter. The amount of epiphytes grows gradually westwards from the smelting shop but in the northern and southern directions epiphytic lichens can only be found at a distance of 30-50 kilometres away from the industrial facilities.

According to the research results of Interreg project of 2003–2007 the total coverage of epiphytic lichens has increased in Norwegian monitoring sites west from the smelter during a ten-year period when compared to a study from 1995–1998.

Birds and small mammals

The impact of the emissions on birds and small mammals can be observed in the vicinity of the smelting plant. Measurements of heavy metals concentrations in the tissues of pied flycatchers showed that the concentrations are higher close to the plant than in more distant areas. Although the contamination in adult birds is gradually lower further away from the plant, at a distance of 22 km it is still considerably higher than in the referenced area in North-Norway.

Nesting success of pied flycatchers is low in the contaminated areas. The emissions’ impact on the environment can also be observed in the weight of fledging pied flycatcher chicks which weight more in areas farther away from the smelter.

There have also been changes in the abundance ratios and population sixes of small mammals in the areas near the smelter. The population densities of the gray red-backed vole, the northern red-backed vole, and the European common shrew are lower at a distance of 7 km from the plant than that at a distance of 13 km from the plant. Besides, gray red-backed voles in these areas are five times more numerous than northern red-backed voles. In the background areas, by contrast, northern red-backed voles usually prevail.

More information about state of terrestrial ecosystem:

The state of the environment in the border area was reported in State of the Environment in the Norwegian, Finnish and Russian Border Area. A summary in plain language can be found in the report Pasvik Programme - Summary Report.

Information about the moss and pine needle studies can be found in the report State of the terrestrial environment in the joint Finnish, Norwegian and Russian border area on the basis of bioindicators.

Information about the heavy metal concentration in berries in the border area can be found in the report Effects of Kola air pollution on the environment in the western part of the Kola Peninsula and Finnish Laplansd– Final report

The project Northern Coniferous Forests – Tools through research for the sustainable use of forests in the Barents Region researched the dynamics, structure and species diversity of Barents region’s forests.

In addition the project Natural and Social Science Research Cooperation in Northern Russia and Norway for Mutual Benefits across National and Scientific Borders has studied the northern tree line’s vegetation.

Images: Lapin ELY