The Arctic has been regarded as one of the worldís few remaining
areas of relatively untouched nature, but in recent years, several
types of contamination have been found in these areas. Measurements
indicate that contaminants like heavy metals, acid precipitation,
persistent organic compounds and radioactivity from human activities
in more southern latitudes are transported to the Arctic by
winds, rivers and ocean currents. The increasing awareness
of this situation in recent years led to the establishment of the
Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) and the Arctic Monitoring
and Assessment Programme (AMAP).
AMAP, established in 1991, was given the responsibility to monitor
the levels and assess the effects of selected anthropogenic pollutants
in all compartments of the Arctic. Their report, ìArctic Pollution
Issues: A State of the Environment Report,î represents a collaborative
effort involving over 400 scientists and administrators. It
is based on AMAP-coordinated national and international monitoring
programs within eight arctic countries, in combination with data
and information from several research programs, including contributions
from non-arctic countries and international organizations.
Review of AMAP Report Conclusions
In comparison with most other areas of the world, the Arctic remains
a clean environment. However, the following conclusions illustrate
that, for some pollutants, combinations of different factors give
rise to concern in certain ecosystems and for some human populations.
These circumstances sometimes occur on a local scale, but in some
cases may be regional or circumpolar in extent.
Knowledge of sources of contamination of the Arctic is improving
and in some cases the information is quantified. The pattern
that is emerging is of two major types of sources- those that are
remote from the Arctic and those found within the Arctic.
Summary Conclusions Concerning Sources Outside
- Outside the Arctic, sources exist for a number of the persistent
organic pollutants (POPs); the main contaminants of concern are:
organochlorine pesticides (e.g. HCH) and their metabolites from
agricultural activities/practices; industrial chemicals (e.g.
PCBs); and anthropogenic and natural combustion products, e.g.
chlorinated dioxins/furans and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
- Over much of the Arctic, the levels of POPs cannot be related
to known use and/or releases from potential sources within the
Arctic and can only be explained by long-range transport from
- Radioactive contamination has arisen from three primary sources:
atmospheric nuclear weapons testing (1950-1980); releases from
European nuclear reprocessing plants, e.g. Sellafield, which peaked
in the mid-1970s; and fallout from the Chernobyl accident in 1986.
- Of the heavy metal contamination in the Arctic, industrial sources
in Europe and North America account for up to one-third of the
deposition, with maximum input in winter.
- Sulfur and nitrogen compounds from sources associated with industries,
energy production and transport in areas remote from the Arctic
result in low but widespread levels of these contaminants throughout
- Regulatory actions in Europe and North America are reducing
the sources of some POPs, heavy metals, sulfur and nitrogen contaminants.
Summary Conclusions Concerning Sources Within
or in Close Proximity to the Arctic:
- PCBs from decommissioned Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line sites
in Canada, and dioxins/furans from smelters in Norway are examples
of identified sources of POPs within the Arctic; other such sources
probably exist but are presently unknown.
- Two-thirds of heavy metals in air in the high Arctic originate
from industrial activities on the Kola Peninsula, the Norilsk
industrial complex, the Urals (outside the Arctic) and the Pechora
- At point sources such as mine sites, heavy metals may exceed
local background concentrations at distances of up to 30 km from
- Mineralization of geologic formations provides significant,
non-anthropogenic local inputs of heavy metals.
- Industrial activities in northwestern Russia, including the
Kola Peninsula, and at Norilsk are the dominant sources of sulfur
north of 60 degrees latitude.
- Severe local and regional problems have occurred recently associated
with the exploration, development and transportation of
oil and gas.
- With the exception of catastrophic releases of oil, concentrations
of hydrocarbons associated with anthropogenic inputs have been
relatively low in the Arctic.
- Local sources of radionuclides, such as dumped nuclear waste,
nuclear storage sites, accidents and past explosions have led
to local radioactive contamination.
- There exists a high concentration of radioactive sources in
northwestern Russia. These sources represent a potential
for release of considerable quantities of radionuclides.
The Arctic is a focus for major atmospheric, riverine, and marine
pathways which result in the long-range transport of contaminants
into and within the Arctic. The Arctic is, therefore, a potential
contaminant storage reservoir and/or sink. Various processes
remove these contaminants from the atmosphere, oceans and rivers
and make them available to plants and animals. Food chains
are the major biological pathways for selective uptake, transfer,
and sometimes magnification of contaminants by Arctic plants and
animals, many of which are subsequently consumed by Arctic peoples.
- Strong south to north air flows, particularly over west
Eurasia in winter, transport contaminants, e.g. sulfur and nitrogen
compounds, POPs and radionuclides, from lower latitudes.
Special mechanisms selectively favor the accumulation of PCBs
and certain pesticides in the Arctic.
- Arctic rivers are a significant pathway for contaminant transport
to the Arctic, often associated with extreme seasonal fluctuations
due to freeze-up and meltwater flushing characteristics.
Suspended solids carry high levels of PCB and DDT in the Ob and
Yenisey river deltas, as do sediments in the Indigirka and Pechora
rivers. Sedimentation processes play a critical role in
depositing particles in estuaries, deltas and Arctic coastal shelves.
These riverine pathways lead to local and regional dispersal of
radionuclides, some heavy metals and oil.
- Ocean waters are a major storage reservoir and transport medium
for water and soluble POPs. Sea ice may be important in
transporting POPs and other contaminants from coastal sediments
during the winter, and from deposition from the atmosphere, with
subsequent redistribution during ice melt.
- Long distance marine transport of radionuclides from previous
mid-latitude releases resulted in accumulations in Arctic sediments.
Radionuclides from current releases from spent fuel storage and
wastes dumped at sea tend to remain local, although low-active
wastes dumped previously in the Arctic marine environment have
been distributed more widely.
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How do these conclusions and pathways relate
to our communities?
Arctic residents have many concerns about radionuclides and other
types of contamination. There are several reasons. They
are constantly reminded about the close proximity of the former
Soviet Union and the potential for transboundary migration of radionuclides
from this area. They have seen scores of revelations about
the former Soviet Unionís faulty operational and waste handling
practices and about accidents in the Kara, Barents and Laptev seas.
Moreover, atmospheric transport times for radionuclides between
the United States and the countries of the former Soviet Union can
be very short. According to the journal ìArctic Research of
the United States,î if the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident occurred
only a few weeks earlier than it did, before the seasonally stable
Arctic haze air mass had dissipated, dangerous level of radioactive
contaminants would have been concentrated over Alaska and northern
During the era of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, subsistence
consumers of caribou were, perhaps, the most exposed individuals
in the western hemisphere. The most important ecological pathway
for radionuclides in the Arctic is the lichen-reindeer-caribou-human
food chain. After Chernobyl, the cesium-137 in lichen peaked
in 1986-87 at levels that are comparable to the peak in fallout
from nuclear weapons tests. While current data from Canada
suggests that radionuclide contamination in the lichen-caribou-human
food chain is not a problem in the Canadian north, we do not have
corresponding firsthand information for Alaska and other Arctic
Arctic residents report observations of changes or abnormalities
in wildlife -- for example, lesions in fish and caribou livers,
population effects for different species and deformities, etc.
And virtually everyone speaks of a deeply held concern over the
diminished health of their people.
Kai Erikson, author of ìA New Species of Trouble: The Human Experience
of Modern Disasters,î underscores a fundamental , yet little understood
truth about the vast difference in how humans respond to natural
disasters as opposed to environmental-technical disasters.
Erikson found that people of all races are likely to work as a community
to cope with life and property lost as a result of natural disasters.
Disasters involving toxic substances -- radionuclides in soil, vegetation
and wildlife or the Exxon Valdez oil spill -- cause people to lose
faith in the ability of the environment to sustain them. Information
from outside experts about these substances, however optimistic,
is unlikely to diminish these fears.
Linking Traditional and Scientific Knowledge
Clearly, resolving concerns and issues of Native people depends
upon a thoughtful approach to link traditional and scientific knowledge
and find solutions that embody community ownership.
Traditional knowledge works well at seeing patterns. Some
patterns change and are expected to change in known ways (like the
changing of the seasons or the freezing or thawing of the ice).
Some patterns stay the same and are expected to be one way (like
the pattern of stars, the smell of fresh meat or the taste of ripe
When the known patterns do not follow their expected course, then
decisions must be made. Those decisions are based on previous
personal experience, what one has been taught and on cultural information.
Traditional knowledge has kept communities strong and flexible.
It is an important part of Native cultures.
In the past when the animals have changed their migration patterns,
Natives moved with them. When the weather changed throughout
the year, people moved with the seasons to new locations and new
activities. When bad events occurred, people would move away
for a time and then return when it was right to do so. When
hunters have gone onto the ice in search for seals and found none,
they have had to make a decision and hunt someplace else and sometimes
for other species. In each of these situations people have
observed change and have taken some action.
When a hunter goes out and takes a caribou and is butchering it,
he may find that something is not quite right. Something does
not look the same. Something does not smell the same.
Based on his observations, he makes a decision to use the animal
or he determines that it is not well and should not be used.
How did he know that something was different?
When a woman who sews finds that when she makes caribou sinew thread
it does not run smooth and snaps much too often, what does she do?
If she is making the soles of mukluks and the crimped edges do not
stay crimped, what does she do? Based on her work and on what
she was taught, she knows something has changed. What did
she look for? How does she know that something is different?
When out gathering berries, people have noticed that the areas
where they have gone in the past may no longer have as many plants,
while other areas that never had berries are now the prime areas
to pick. What has changed?
Some Examples of Changes Noted by Alaska Natives:
- The color of Eskimo (Labrador) tea plants is not as green and
the color of the sky is not as blue. These observations
were later shown to be an indication of Arctic air pollution.
- The ability to forecast the weather for three days is no longer
possible as it changes faster now than in the past. Is this
due to global warming?
- The thickness of seal skins has changed. You can see light
through the skins now. Skins crimped for mukluks do not
hold the crimp. Mukluk soles take longer to dry and do not
get as hard. Is this a result of endocrine system disruption?
- Seal oil used to be clear. Now it is yellowish and sometimes
is even amber-colored. Seal blubber does not render as completely
to oil as it did before. A seal does not make as much oil
- Ice is forming later and melting earlier. Sea ice is not
as strong. Ice is dirty.
- Ice cellars are not keeping meat frozen hard. Ice cellars
- There are new species of animals (birds, fish, shellfish and
marine mammals) being seen. Some species that were common
are now disappearing.
- Tumors, lumps or sores have been found in birds, fish, and marine
and land mammals.
- Some areas have gotten wetter and so the plants and animals
have changed. Some areas have gotten drier. Some areas
have less snow. Some glaciers are disappearing and new plants
- Sharks are being seen more often and farther north.
- Belugas and Orcas are being seen further up inlets and river
mouths. They have been seen eating animals that are not
Why are these changes occurring? Are they linked to environmental
contaminants? Are we collecting observations of change that
are the most important? How are we documenting change?
Are there specific patterns or pathways that we can identify throughout
the Arctic nations? How do others, including researchers and
governmental officials, hear about what people are observing?
How do we use the knowledge of our communities to improve the role
of science and research regarding contaminants?
We, as residents and stewards of the Arctic, must be the leaders.
The path that we create must look to the future as well as remember
and utilize the past.