Pesticides in Svalbard snow

Scientists at the Norwegian Polar Institute and the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) have investigated the amount of pesticides in the snow in Svalbard. Read about their findings here.

Lomonosovfonna

Photo: Gerit Rotschky / Norwegian Polar Institute

Ice core drilling tent on Lomonosovfonna, Svalbard

Ice core drilling tent on Lomonosovfonna, Svalbard. Photo: Gerit Rotschky / Norwegian Polar Institute

Drilling ice cores

Drilling ice cores. Photo: Gerit Rotschky / Norwegian Polar Institute

Preparing ice cores

Preparing ice cores. Photo: Gerit Rotschky / Norwegian Polar Institute

Taking snow samples

Taking snow samples. Photo: Gerit Rotschky / Norwegian Polar Institute

Legacy and current use pesticides in Svalbard

Mark Hermanson (UNIS)
Elisabeth Isaksson (Norwegian Polar Institute)
November 2009

How much dursban have you used to kill termites at your home in Longyearbyen? How much methyl parathion has been used to kill boll weevils on cotton plants in Ny-Ålesund? And how much endosulfan has been used to kill insects in apple orchards in Svea? While all of these questions are silly, the reality is that all of these and other pesticides are found in Svalbard. Some of them are found in high enough concentrations to suggest that there could be 1000 kg of each of them on all of the land ice in Svalbard.

While insects are sometimes brought to Svalbard in cargo and, occasionally on strong winds from the south, the climate here is the most efficient pest killer that we have. So why are pesticides being found here?

Since 2000, researchers from Environment Canada, the University of Pennsylvania (USA), the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø, and now UNIS, have been asking the same question.

These groups have collaborated on investigating pesticides in ice cores and snow pits from sites on Austfonna, Lomonosovfonna, and Holtedahlfonna, three of the major high-elevation ice fields in Svalbard.

The most recent work, on an ice core drilled at Holtedahlfonna in 2005, included analysis of 64 different pesticides, some of them "legacy" pesticides that are no longer used, others "current-use" pesticides that are still being used somewhere in the world. [The legacy pesticides are no longer used because they are persistent in the environment and threaten non-pest organisms. The current-use pesticides are intended to have short lifetimes in the environment, often decomposing in air because of the energy effects of the sun. In darkness, however, that effect is nil.] Of these 64, there were insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. And of those 64, 21 were found in some part of the ice core. We should be happy that 43 pesticides were not found at all. But none of the other 21 were used in Svalbard, so, again, how did they get here? And why are they found in ice at high elevations?

Our research is showing us that the atmosphere can deliver pesticides over long distances as gases or attached to particles suspended in air. Most of the pesticides are being transported to Svalbard by fast-moving winds from agricultural areas in Europe and Asia or, in other words, from the south and east. They are deposited during snowfall or rain, or may change from gas to liquid in cold air. Fortunately, there is no indication that the amounts of pesticides being found are harmful to people or animals living on Svalbard. However, there is evidence that amounts of some pesticides in Svalbard are growing and need to be watched in the future.

We are also finding that there are differences in amounts and numbers of pesticides reaching different parts of Svalbard. Austfonna, for example, received about twice as many different pesticides during the 1986 – 1998 period than found at Holtedahlfonna. Austfonna also had higher concentrations of most of the pesticides found at both sites. Analysis of air mass movements showed that air masses from Europe and northern Asia are more often flowing to Austfonna than to Holtedahlfonna, increasing the opportunities for pesticides to reach the northeastern part of Svalbard.

Some of these pesticides that appear in Svalbard, if found in food or water in high concentrations, can be extremely harmful to mammals, including seals, polar bears and humans. The chemical agents in these pesticides do not distinguish between "pests" and "non-pests". The chemical in dursban, known as "chlorpyrifos", has the same toxic mechanism as chemical warfare agents like Sarin or VX , although at a very high dose. In other words, it is a poison that interferes with control of the nervous system which is how it kills pests. Endosulfan is thought to act like hormones in the human body, causing disruptions of some body functions. Other pesticides are considered to be carcinogens.

The amounts of pesticides found in Svalbard can not possibly do any good. And the concentrations of some are increasing. So how can a Svalbard resident protect himself from the effects of pesticides? The best answer is the same used by people in other parts of the world, which is participation in a political process based on scientific facts. The "legacy" pesticides seen in Svalbard are nearly all declining in concentration because their use has been banned throughout the world by the Stockholm Convention. This Convention is an on-going effort to eliminate contaminants, including pesticides, from the environment. The list of banned substances continues to grow, and with efforts from Svalbard citizens and scientists, could include more of the pesticides found in growing amounts in Svalbard.