Contaminants in the environment, plants and animals

The global circulation systems carry air and water masses towards the poles where they circulate and have a certain residence time. This natural circulation process supplies the Arctic with contaminants which derive from sources close to densely populated, industrialised parts of the planet.

Physical environment

Atmospheric pollution is monitored in the Norwegian part of the Arctic at the Zeppelin Station in Ny-Ålesund. The monitoring focuses on compounds associated with acidification and top dressing, greenhouse gases, organic pollutants and heavy metals.

Acid precipitation was a major environmental problem until around the 1970s. The problem is caused by nitrogen and sulphur compounds in the atmosphere, and subsequent acid precipitation. Such precipitation caused forests to die, and top dressing could result in changes in the composition of the vegetation; for instance, moss could be out-competed by grass. Sulphur is a greater problem than nitrogen in the Arctic. Experience has shown that discharges from Russia and to some extent Eurasia are the principal sources of sulphur and nitrate compounds measured in the Norwegian part of the Arctic.

An evaluation in the 1990s revealed that about 5 % of ice-free areas with vegetation showed effects of acid precipitation. The discharges have been substantially reduced since then, and measurements of sulphur compounds at the Zeppelin Station showed a reduction of as much as 61 % from 1980 to 2010.

Heavy metals are emitted in connection with traffic and industry. In nature, heavy metals affect both people and wildlife. For instance, lead is acutely toxic to aquatic organisms and mammals, harming foetuses and having immunological effects. The Zeppelin Station measurements show that lead levels were reduced by 30 % from 1994 to 2010. The shift from leaded to unleaded petrol contributed to this reduction worldwide. Measurements of cadmium and mercury do not show corresponding trends in the Arctic, probably because the global circulation patterns continue to supply the Arctic with these heavy metals from distant sources where industrial activity is high.

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are a special problem for wildlife in the Arctic because they are fat-soluble and arctic animals are dependent upon stores of fat to insulate them against the cold. The POPs accumulate in the fatty tissue and are liberated to other parts of the body when the animal is starving or fasting.

POPs are measured at the Zeppelin Station, and 2011 stood out by having the lowest ever annual mean for several of the most common POPs, such as PCBs. HCB has increased a little in Arctic air masses each year since 2007.

According to the Management plan for Lofoten and the Barents Sea (2010), these waters are clean and rich in life, and have a low level of pollution. The reprocessing plants for nuclear waste at Sellafield and Cap de la Hague are sources of technetium-99, a radioactive [tooltip id={isotop}]isotope[/tooltip]. Seawater in Kongsfjorden in Svalbard and off Jan Mayen is monitored to try to track nuclear waste emissions. Technetium-99 emissions rose greatly in the mid-1990s and this was reflected in the measurements, but they have declined since then.

MOSJ indiCATORS (Environmental monitoring in Svalbard and Jan Mayen):  

Plants and animals

The Arctic fox in Svalbard belongs to the ecotype, coastal fox, which mainly subsists on birds and carrion. The arctic fox is a top predator, linked to all the main groups of animals in the archipelago, and utilises both the terrestrial and marine food chains. Due to its link to the marine food chain and the enormous variation in its storage of fat from one season to another, the arctic fox is exposed to high levels of contaminants.

The arctic fox is exposed to relatively high levels of contaminants, corresponding to those measured in polar bears. The levels in arctic foxes in Svalbard exceed those found in Alaska, Canada and Iceland. A study of young arctic foxes from West Spitsbergen has shown a reduction in persistent organic pollutants between 1997 and 2010 (Andersen et al. unpublished).

The polar bear is a predator at the peak of the marine food chain in the Arctic. It mainly eats seals, such as the ringed seal, which it hunts on the ice. Polar bears are extremely dependent upon sea ice for hunting and living on, and will be affected by changes in the ice. As a top predator in the marine food web, it is exposed to high levels of contaminants, especially the persistent organic pollutants. These are slowly degradable contaminants which are stored in fat and increase in concentration up the food chain.

Like the ringed seal, the polar bear is exposed to both pollution and decreasing sea ice. Effects from persistent organic pollutants have been demonstrated on the hormone, vitamin, enzyme, and immune systems of polar bears. This is a stress factor which may pose a threat to the population in Svalbard. In addition, it has been observed that higher mortalities of cubs coincide with higher contaminant loads in Svalbard and Franz Josef Land compared with Russia, Alaska and Greenland. This indicates that the reproductive ability of the polar bear may also be weakened by contaminants. Ringed seals form an important food item for polar bears, and they in turn feed on such creatures as crustaceans and polar cod. The content of contaminants in ringed seals was investigated in 1996 and 2004, and PCB levels fell significantly in this period.

A number of seabirds in the Arctic are high in food chains, even though they are not top predators. Some are carrion eaters and consume remains of marine mammals which have a high content of contaminants. Others, like the Brünnich’s guillemot, consume fat-rich fish like capelin, and also polar cod. Brünnich’s guillemot eggs were analysed for contaminants in 1993, 2002-2003 and 2007. The trends for PCBs, DDE (a breakdown product of DDT) and toxaphene are declining, whereas HCB remains unchanged. The glaucous gull is at the peak of the food chain. Measurements performed on glaucous gulls on Bjørnøya (Bear Island) from 1972 to 2006 revealed high levels of “old” organic pollutants, such as PCBs, DDT, chlordane and HCB, and in part high levels of “new” pollutants such as brominated flame retardants and fluorinated compounds. The pollutant load has had significant consequences for the health of glaucous gulls on Bjørnøya in the Barents Sea. Effects have been demonstrated on the enzyme and immune defence systems, hormones, reproduction and survival. Some glaucous gulls on Bjørnøya eat large numbers of seabird eggs and chicks during the breeding period, and this part of the population is particularly exposed to the highest levels of contaminants. The most serious effects have been found in these birds, but negative effects in birds away from Bjørnøya have also been found.

Polar cod and capelin are key species in the arctic ecosystem, and both are being monitored with a view to their contaminant load. Since both species are important food items for other fish-eating fish and for seals, whales and seabirds, this monitoring will provide better information about the bioconcentration up the food chain. In general, the levels of organic pollutants are very low in both polar cod and capelin, and it is believed that neither of these species suffers any effects of a contamination load.

MOSJ indicators (Environmental monitoring in Svalbard and Jan Mayen):