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A Siberian River Has Mysteriously Turned Blood Red

The Daldykan River in Siberia has recently turned red, and the cause is not yet known.
Liza Udilova / Greenpeace
The Daldykan River in Siberia has recently turned red, and the cause is not yet known.

Alarmed Russians are sharing photos on social media of a Siberian river that has suddenly and mysteriously turned blood red.

Russian authorities are trying to determine the cause of the ominous change to the Daldykan River, located above the Arctic Circle and flowing through the mining town of Norilsk. Photos posted on Facebook by the Association of the Indigenous Peoples of the Taimir Peninsula clearly show the river has turned a vivid red.

As National Geographic reported, two major theories are emerging to explain the change. "The first is that the red color comes from the large quantity of iron that occurs naturally in the ground in that region," National Geographic said. "The second is a chemical leak."

Russia's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment said in a statement that it suspects the latter explanation: "According to our initial information, a possible reason for the pollution of the river might be a break in the pipeline" belonging to a local factory, which is owned by the nickel and palladium giant Norilsk Nickel.

The ministry did not specify what kind of chemical may be leaking into the river. According to the BBC, the government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta suggested that the pipeline could be leaking waste copper-nickel concentrate.

Despite the numerous social media posts and the government statement confirming the red color, Norilsk Nickel maintains everything is normal with the river. "The waters show the natural tone; the river and its mainstream are in regular condition, which goes against the information about any color changes due to an alleged case of large-scale river pollution," Norilsk Nickel said in a statement. It included photos such as this one, which it said were taken yesterday morning:

The company, Norilsk Nickel, released photos of the river it says were taken Wednesday, claiming it is in "regular condition."
/ Norilsk Nickel
Norilsk Nickel
The company, Norilsk Nickel, released photos of the river it says were taken Wednesday, claiming it is in "regular condition."

The company added that it has "strengthened the environmental monitoring in the area of the river and adjacent production facilities" and would test samples from the river this week.

This isn't the first time the river has changed color, according to multiple news outlets. The Guardian reported that some social media users said it had also happened in June. "Periodically there are accidents when these pipes break and the solutions spill and get into the Daldykan — that's why it changes colour," Denis Koshevoi, a Ph.D. candidate studying pollution in the area, told the newspaper.

"Incidents such as the polluting of the waters of Daldykan River is a common occurrence in the Russian Arctic because of a consistent irresponsible attitude towards environmental standards," Vladmir Chouprov, head of the energy program of Greenpeace Russia, said in a statement. "The Arctic ecosystem is extremely vulnerable; scars of human impact need decades or even centuries to amend."

Area residents don't drink this water, as CNN reported. The network quoted the state news agency, saying "the river isn't connected to the public water supply and the incident doesn't pose an immediate threat to the residents' well-being."

The area has a tragic history, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reported from Norilsk in 2000. "Norilsk began as part of the gulag archipelago. Stalin sent prisoners there to extract the mineral wealth of Russia's frozen north," she said. "Workers lived in desolate, brutal prison camps. Only after 1956 did Soviets begin to go to Norilsk voluntarily to take high-paying mining jobs."

Michele described what it looked like during her visit: "As far as the eye can see there are cranes, polluting smokestacks from the smelters and rusty pipes winding through the trashed landscape of this Arctic city."

And now, a red river flows through it.

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.