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Pollution in the Arctic

Arctic Pollution

A report by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, (AMAP) in a study that ran from 1991 to 1996 said that POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) are a cause for concern in the Arctic. POPs are among the chemical substances which persist in the environment, accumulate in the food chain, and threaten adverse effects on human health and the environment. Although these substances, which include Lindane and Chlorodane are not used in the far north they are carried there from the mid latitudes of North America, Russia and Europe

There is a perception that pollution in the Arctic is a new phenomenon, but researchers from the University of Utah, in a report released in 2008, note that explorers in the Arctic in the late 1800’s wrote of haze and dust. The earliest mention of this contaminated haze seems to have been in an issue of the journal Science in 1883, by the famous Swedish geologist Adolf Erik Nordenskjold. This haze and dust were probably the result of smelting and burning coal during the Industrial Revolution. As early as 1870 Nordenskjold recorded a grey dust on the ice that appeared to composed of metallic iron, Nickel and Cobalt, he thought it was ‘Cosmic Dust’ but it is far more likely to be the result of industrial pollution. In 2007 scientists Garrett & Verzella reported “Recent Greenland ice cores show a rapid rise in anthropogenic soot and sulfate that began in the late 1800s, but with peak sulfate levels in the 1970s, and peak soot between 1906 and 1910,”

Snippets of information

Research on the Austfonna ice cap in Svalbard revealed that between 1970 and 2000, around 20 pesticides that are still in use were deposited on the icecap.

There are very high levels of DDT in Russian rivers compared to Europe and North America

Bear Island is a known hot spot for PCBs and POPs and the population of Glaucous Gulls there have been observed behaving strangely with sporadic deaths recorded.

Lake Hazen on Ellesmere Island is reported to have enough Lindane in it to fill several oil barrels.

Inuit Woman Breastfeeding
In 1987, Dr. Eric Dewailly analysed the breast milk from inuit mothers in Nunavik in the Canadian Arctic. Originally intended as the control group to compare with mothers from the industrialized cities of the Gulf of St Lawrence, the Inuit breast milk was discovered to contained seven times the amount of PCBs than the breast milk from the women in the cities. In June 2003 pregnant Inuit women in Canada were advised to eat less blubber, in response to these figures.

Because it is impossible to experiment on wild Polar Bears, trials were conducted on captive sled dogs and arctic foxes. Some were fed on Minke Whale fat, which is similar in its burden of contaminants to the fat of ringed seals that a Polar bear would be eating, a control group was fed on uncontaminated pork fat. The animals on Minke Whale blubber had altered Liver and Kidney functions and reduced immunity. These results are similar to what has been reported in Polar Bears in East Greenland. Polar bear mothers pass these contaminants to their cubs in their fat rich milk.


Because of the long life of radioactive contamination of soil, serious attention has been paid to this subject. AMAP states that in 2008 164 of the 198 obsolete Russian Nuclear submarines had been dismantled and defueled in a responsible manner, similar plans exist for dealing with the Nuclear Icebreakers at the end of their working life.

About half of the radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG’s) have been removed from the Russian Arctic and the Nuclear waste storage sites at Andreeva Bay and Gremikha have been improved but work still needs to be done to improve transport and storage of nuclear waste.

How do the Pollutants get to the Arctic

Precipitation in the Arctic
Contaminants find many transport systems to the Arctic. Low Pressure in the Arctic and High pressure over temperate regions carries warm contaminated air into the North where they fall in any precipitation. The winds generated in an El Nino year carriy pollutants over Baffin Island. Over the North Pole, there is a permanent wind pattern that creates the Arctic Polar Vortex. Wind is very good at distributing volatile substances and contaminants that adhere to small particles this leads to massive transport of air pollution from various mid-latitude sources to the northern polar regions, on a scale that could never have been imagined. Russian rivers carry chemicals from the industrial heartlands into the Arctic Ocean where they are absorbed into the food web. Animals and birds are also responsible for delivering contaminants, in some Arctic lakes the pollutants arrived in seabird guano.

Sources within the Arctic

There are substantial industrial complexes in Russia that are in the Arctic. Norilsk in Taymyr has factories and smelters that produce substantial amounts of pollutants. Monchegorsk on the Kola Peninsula is one of the most polluted areas in north West Russia on account of the Nickel smelters in town. Murmansk has the port with rusting hulks of old ships in waters just outside the commercial and Nuclear harbours.

This subject is huge and I suggest downloading the AMAP reports for the fullest breakdown of what is happening.

Text © B & C Alexander


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