Contaminating the Arctic

Our perception of the Arctic region is that its distance from industrial centers keeps it pristine and clear from the impact of pollution. However, through a process known as transboundary pollution, the Arctic is the recipient of contaminants whose sources are thousands of miles away.

Large quantities of pollutants pour into our atmosphere, as well as our lakes, rivers, and oceans on a daily basis. In the last 20 years, scientists have detected an increasing variety of toxic contaminants in the North, including pesticides from agriculture, chemicals and heavy metals from industry, and even radioactive fall-out from Chernobyl. These are substances that have invaded ecosystems virtually worldwide, but they are especially worrisome in the Arctic.

Originally, Arctic contamination was largely blamed on chemical leaks, and these leaks were thought to be "small and localized." The consensus now is that pollutants from around the world are being carried north by rivers, ocean currents, and atmospheric circulation. Due to extreme conditions in the Arctic, including reduced sunlight, extensive ice cover and cold temperatures, contaminants break down much more slowly than in warmer climates. Contaminants can become highly concentrated due to their significantly lengthened life span in the Arctic.

Problems of spring run-off into coastal waters during the growth period of marine life is a critical concern. Spring algae blooms easily, absorbing the concentrated contaminants released by spring melting. These algae are in turn eaten by zoo plankton and a wide variety of marine life. The accumulation of these contaminants increases with each step of the food chain or web and can potentially affect northerners who eat marine mammals near the top of the food chain. Pollutants respect no borders; transboundary pollution is the movement of contaminants across political borders, whether by air, rivers, or ocean currents. The eight Circumpolar nations, led by the Finnish Initiative of 1989, established the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) in which participants have agreed to develop an Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP). AMAP establishes an international scientific network to monitor the current condition of the Arctic with respect to specific contaminants. This monitoring program is extremely important because it will give a scientific basis for understanding the scope of the problem.

Arctic Haze

In the 1950's, pilots traveling on weather reconnaissance flights in the Canadian high Arctic, reported seeing bands of haze in the springtime in the Arctic region. It was during this time that the term "Arctic haze" was first used, referring to this smog of unknown origin. But it was not until 1972, that Dr. Glenn Shaw of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska first put forth ideas of the nature and long-range origin of Arctic haze. The idea that the source was long range was very difficult for many to support.

Each winter, cold dense air settles over the Arctic. In the darkness, the Arctic seems to become more and more polluted by a buildup of mid-latitude emissions from fossil fuel combustion, smelting and other industrial processes. By late winter, the Arctic is covered by a layer of this haze the size of the continent of Africa. When the spring light arrives in the Arctic, there is a smog-like haze which makes the region, at times, looks like pollution over such cities as Los Angeles.

This polluted air is a well-known and well-characterized feature of the late winter Arctic environment. In the North American Arctic, episodes of brown or black snow have been traced to continental storm tracks that deliver gaseous and particulate-associated contaminants from Asian deserts and agricultural areas. It is now known that the contaminants originate largely from Europe and Asia.

Arctic haze has been studied most extensively in Point Barrow, Alaska, across the Canadian Arctic and in Svalbard (Norway). Evidence from ice cores drilled from the ice sheet of Greenland indicates that these haze particles were not always present in the Arctic, but began to appear only in the last century. The Arctic haze particles appear to be similar to smog particles observed in industrial areas farther south, consisting mostly of sulfates mixed with particles of carbon. It is believed the particles are formed when gaseous sulfur dioxide produced by burning sulfur-bearing coal is irradiated by sunlight and oxidized to sulfate, a process catalyzed by trace elements in the air. These sulfate particles or droplets of sulfuric acid quickly capture the carbon particles which are also floating in the air. Pure sulfate particles or droplets are colorless, so it is believed the darkness of the haze is caused by the mixed-in carbon particles.

The impact of the haze on Arctic ecosystems, as well as the global environment, has not been adequately researched. The pollutants have been studied in their aerosol form over the Arctic. However, little is known about what eventually happens to them. It is known that they are removed somehow. There is a good degree of likelihood that the contaminants end up in the ocean, likely into the North Atlantic, Norwegian Sea and possibly the Bering Sea — all three very important fisheries.

Currently, the major issue among researchers is to understand the impact of Arctic haze on global climate change. The contaminants absorb sunlight and, in turn, heat up the atmosphere. The global impact of this is currently unknown but the implications are quite powerful.

Additional Resources:

Some of the resources used for the contamination theme articles (Digests #7-10):
  • Acid Rain, A Plague Upon the Waters, Robert Ostmann Jr.

  • The Sky Is Still Falling, Donald E. Carr

  • Canadian Geographic, Feb.-March 1991, v111, n1, p.53 (8), "The not-so-pristine Arctic: from plankton to polar bears, the food chain contaminated by global pollution."

  • Environment, Dec. 1992, v34, n10, p.6 (9), "The odyssey of Arctic haze: toward a global atmospheric regime."

  • The Science of the Total Environment, An International Journal for Scientific Research Into the Environment and Its Relationship to Man. Jan. 15, 1995, volumes 160, 161