A subsidence and heave map of the formerly disputed territories of Ukraine from the analysis of satellite radar data. The chain of interconnected mines that include the radioactive Yunkom Mine can be clearly seen from space as a 50km streak of heave (blue), evidence of rising minewater.
Ukraine is heading for an environmental catastrophe which could lead to a ‘second Chernobyl’ after a UK land motion survey firm mapped the area for the first time with satellite radar data.
Terra Motion, founded in 2015 by researchers from the University of Nottingham, revealed in a never-before-seen millimetre-level accuracy satellite survey that toxic water in abandoned coal mines is rising at an alarming rate.
Luhansk and Donetsk, part of the coal-rich Donbas region, have been areas heavily involved in fighting between the Ukraine military and Russia-backed separatists during its eight-year conflict. This has resulted in a lack of environmental supervision by the separatists, particularly ceasing the pumping of dirty water in mines that keeps the levels low. An impending full-scale military invasion by the Russians would further exacerbate a desperate environmental situation.
Unless the pumping is reinstated, Dr David Gee, Senior Technical Officer at Terra Motion, says the rising waters could set in motion a chain reaction that would render large parts of the region uninhabitable, spilling toxic waste into rivers and groundwater, making living there impossible.
The Yunkom mine is of most notable concern as this contains the remnants of an underground nuclear explosion. Pumping there ceased in 2018 and the mine is hydraulically connected to neighboring mines which are also flooding.
Ostap Semerak, speaking as Ukraine’s ecology minister in 2018, warned of the danger of a ‘second Chernobyl’ and called for international help to stop a radiation catastrophe which could result in radioactive contamination and mineralisation of the waters in the region and even damage the ecology as far as the Sea of Azov.
Due to the ongoing conflicts and lack of access to the mines, scientists in Ukraine are unable to monitor the minewater rebound. However, Terra Motion has applied its novel remote monitoring method to the mines in the Donbas region to map the rise in minewater following the cessation of pumping, to forecast when it might reach the surface and how it may discharge into the surroundings.
Dr Gee said: “Initial calculations suggest that the radioactive water level in the Yunkom mine could be on course to reach the surface as early as within the next couple of years. Unfortunately, the case of Yunkom is not unique and there are three other mines containing radioactive waste within the Donbas region.
“If this continues unabated, the entire mine will flood uncontrollably and continue to leak radioactive and/or toxic material into the neighboring mines. The spread of contaminants might be impossible to control given the power of water flows and the interconnectedness of the mines. Consequently, the entire region would be the site of an enormous ecological disaster that would be felt for generations by Ukraine and its neighboring countries. Certainly, this region is on track for a catastrophic event in the very near future.”
Heave (blue) is identified over a string of mines north of Donetsk. This includes the Yunkom mine which contains radioactive waste. The changing patterns of heave over time indicate how the contaminated water may have spread from mine-to-mine since the pumping of groundwater ceased and the contaminated minewater rises back up to the surface.
The Terra Motion system uses readily-available Sentinel-1 satellite radar imagery to capture any millimetre-scale rise (heave) at the mine surface. The heave occurs as rising minewater seeps into the underground geology, causing it to expand. Such measurements can be used in hydrogeological models to monitor and forecast changes in groundwater levels, an approach which was first trialed over coal mining areas in the UK.
The Terra Motion technique, called APSIS™, is vital component of the approach as it is uniquely able to make dense measurements over urban and rural terrain, critical if a full picture of the rising rate of water and the spatial extent is needed to predict when and where the contaminated groundwater might discharge when it hits the surface.
The surface movement measurements were subsequently utilised to model the groundwater rise with the aid of some basic mining data provided by the State Ecological Academy of Postgraduate Education and Management, Ukraine.
Terra Motion says this model provides a remote, non-invasive method to map the flow of minewater. Such monitoring is vital given that there is no or limited access to the relatively sparse network of boreholes in the occupied territories.
Dr Stephen Grebby, academic lead from the University of Nottingham, said: “This remote monitoring technique will make a significant contribution to humanitarian efforts to assess impending ecological disasters in war-torn areas around the world.”
How the Map was Generated
The map was generated from the analysis of just over five years’ worth (March 2015-October 2020) of radar images from the European Sentinel-1 satellite which is a cheap and readily available source of data. An approach called Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) was used to generate thousands of interferometric pairs from the source images that were then processed using Terra Motion’s in-house and Patent-Pending APSIS™ technology. The APSIS™ technology is unlike any other InSAR processing technique as it is uniquely able to work over vegetated and natural surfaces to generate land motion measurements across the entire region. Furthermore, no ground observations are needed so this is ideal for remote or hazardous locations. A map as precise as this and with almost complete coverage could not have been generated using any other approach.
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Notes to Editors
Terra Motion Limited is a spin-out company from the University of Nottingham. It was incorporated in 2015 after the team won the prestigious Copernicus Masters Prize (also known as the ‘Space Oscars’) in 2014 and was named as one of the ‘Star Companies of the UK Space Sector’ by Business Leader magazine in 2019. Terra Motion provide land motion surveys for environmental safety and security to a number of commercial sectors using Patent-Pending APSIS™ technology, exclusively licensed by the University of Nottingham. The technology is based upon the Big Data processing of satellite radar data.