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 the Arctic:

  • 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 (PAHs).
  • 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 lower latitudes.
  • 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 the Arctic.
  • 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 Basin.
  • At point sources such as mine sites, heavy metals may exceed local background concentrations at distances of up to 30 km from the site.
  • 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.

Contaminant Pathways:

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 Canada.

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 nations.

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 berry).

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?  From contamination?
  • 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 now.
  • 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 are îsweating.î
  • 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 are appearing.
  • 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 typically consumed.


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.


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