Looking skyward at midday on 16 February 2016, a US serviceman at Thule Airbase in northwest Greenland shot a brief amateur video. In the video, a bright light appears in the sky, moving downward and quickly westward. The fast-moving light was the second stage of a ‘Rockot’—a modified SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missile used by Russia to launch mid-sized satellites into orbit.

Russia has dropped similar rocket stages into the Barents Sea and Baffin Bay on ten occasions since 2002. These maritime areas, located north of Norway and between Canada and Greenland, are of considerable ecological importance. At least two more launches using the same type of rocket are planned for 13 October 2017 and sometime in March 2018.

The situation demands attention because the first two stages of Rockots are powered by unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, a highly toxic chemical that has caused widespread health and environmental damage in Kazakhstan and Russia as a result of its extensive use there as a rocket fuel. Not all of the fuel on-board is consumed during a launch and the residual fuel tends to escape the incoming stages and form aerosol clouds that drift over large areas.

In this path-breaking study, we explain why Russia uses these toxic-fueled rockets, the environmental, health and legal risks involved, and what steps need to be taken to prevent the risk of even more pollution.


The full article “Toxic splash: Russian rocket stages dropped in Arctic waters raise health, environmental and legal concerns” by Michael Byers and Cameron Byers has been published Open Access and can be viewed here. 

Professor Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia is a longstanding Cambridge University author, with his most recent book being International Law and the Arctic (2013). His son, Cameron Byers, is the co-author of this article because it was he who discovered that rocket stages were falling in Arctic waters and that toxic fuel was involved.


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