Arctic Pollution: How Much is Too Much?

In recent years, as environmental concerns have percolated toward the top of the policy agenda, Canadians have discovered that all is not well in the Great White North. Our frozen slice of Eden has been thrust into the 20th century, and with that displacement has come a disquieting array of very "un-arctic" problems.

To portray the Arctic as little more than a chemical dumpsite would be misleading. Compared with other regions on the face of the globe, the Arctic remains a pristine wilderness. And yet the lexicon of "arctic" pollution is no less fearful than that of industrial regions in North America or Europe. Furans, cadmium, dioxins, chlordane, selenium, PCBs, mercury, radioactive fallout-all are now a part of what has long been regarded as the planet's most vulnerable and fragile ecosystem.

"Arctic contaminants" is a deceptive phrase. The Arctic is polluted because the world in which we live is polluted. What is disturbing is that the "arctic wastes" of legend are now taking on a new meaning; remoteness and the absence of indigenous pollution sources no longer guarantee the well-being of northern communities and the viability of wildlife populations.

It is indeed a sad irony that the traditional, land-based economy of northern aboriginal populations, based on an abiding respect for natural ecosystems, is threatened most by the effects of non-indigenous pollution.

But while pollution is pollution no matter where it exists, the Arctic does present a potentially more serious situation. Detection, monitoring, and cleanup are difficult due to climatic conditions, remoteness, and the shifting interplay between land and sea-ice. Whereas solar radiation generally speeds the break-down of contaminants, the reduced level of sunlight in the Arctic lengthens the degradation process and increases the likelihood that toxic substances will find their way into the food chain.

A recent report prepared by the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development notes:

"In making comparisons with other ecosystems, it is, however, important to stress that the lower concentrations detected in the arctic do not diminish the importance of their effects on ecosystem health."

 In addition, the report found that "there are currently insufficient data on sources, sinks, and pathways and spatial and temporal trends of contaminants in the arctic ecosystem."

In many respects, the Arctic serves as a benchmark for global pollution. The spillover of industrial contaminants from other regions via air, ocean, and river currents tells us a great deal about the overall health of the planet. And although new, often challenging, questions have been posed, the mere fact of pollution in the Arctic has sounded the alarm and helped rouse policy makers to the need for concerted action.

There are no easy answers to arctic pollution. The bioaccumulative effect associated with repeated exposure to toxic substances counters the natural defences of most organisms and means potentially dangerous levels of toxins can span generations. And while exposure to toxic pollutants is rarely fatal in humans, the effects-both direct and indirect-can be debilitating.

 On the domestic front, the federal government's "Green Plan" strategy is a step in the right direction, but turning tough talk and noble intentions into implementation and enforcement may prove a difficult task as the spectre of economic recession looms on the horizon. The Green Plan's northern component, the Arctic Environmental Strategy, is as yet little more than a collection of finely tuned phrases designed for public consumption.

In the international North, several recent initiatives display much promise-the ongoing multilateral consultations known as the "Finnish Initiative", the establishment of the "Northern Forum" as a permanent decision-making organization of regional leaders, creation of the International Arctic Science Committee but each must recognize the difficulty inherent in addressing a global problem on a regional basis.

Efforts to deal with the problems of industrial pollution at the multilateral level involve a range of geopolitical considerations and must go well beyond the purview of the circumpolar "eight"--Canada, the United States, the U.S.S.R., Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. Studies of arctic pollution point to heavy industry in eastern Europe and neighbouring regions as primary sources, but traces of pesticides and related chemicals from as far away as southeast Asia have been detected in the tissues of arctic wildlife.

What is required, then, is agreement among the arctic states on the scope of pollution problems in northern regions as well as a political mechanism by which the eight can deal effectively with non-arctic polluters.

 The concept of an arctic basin council, first proposed in the 1988 CAR C report, The North and Canada's International Relations, is now being actively explored. CARC, with the support of the Walter and Duncan Gordon Charitable Foundation, has convened a panel of northern native leaders and researchers to prepare a framework document for release early in 1991.

 Later this year, CARC, in co-operation with the National Capital Branch of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, will publish The Arctic Environment and Canada's International Relations, a follow-up volume to the 1988 report which will review the state of Canada's arctic environment and offer a number of recommendations. The section which follows has been adapted from material prepared for that volume.

 Pollution in the Arctic

 Due to its relatively small human population and the general absence of large-scale industrialization, the arctic region does not represent a major source of pollution. Yet, in nearly all parts of the circumpolar Arctic, increasing pollution of the natural environment is a serious problem. In most places, current levels of pollution are low-considerably lower than in most urban and industrialized areas in the mid-latitudes- but still cause for concern because:

In addition, because the effects of pollution from distant sources are in some cases clearly discernible in the Arctic, arctic regions serve as important indicators of environmental changes in the planet as a whole-and of the need for international action to control further deterioration.

Pollution of international significance is generated within the arctic regions in only a few areas. The most important of these at present are the highly industrialized Kola Peninsula and White Sea regions of northwestern Russia, and the large metallurgical and wood processing complexes of north-central Siberia. Each of these areas contributes to circumpolar pollution; the prevailing winds carry airborne pollutants over the central Arctic Basin, and the rivers deliver their contaminants to the Arctic Ocean.

 Other potential arctic sources of pollution are the areas of present or potential hydrocarbon production and transport in the arctic Soviet Union, arctic Canada and Alaska, and the adjacent seas. The possibility of damage to sensitive arctic marine ecosystems by routine or accidental oil spills or disposal of radioactive waste is a serious concern for indigenous people and others who make use of, or value, the Arctic's marine and aquatic resources.


 Transport of Pollutants

 Pollution from lower latitudes is carried into the Arctic by atmospheric circulation and ocean currents. Global atmospheric circulation patterns are such that eastward-moving air masses in northern mid-latitudes become polluted near the surface and then may get carried at moderate or higher elevations to the arctic regions, where they descend and may deposit their impurities. The main pathways by which airborne pollutants reach the Arctic are over northern Europe and Asia and then across the Arctic Ocean to northern Canada and Alaska, although excursions of polluted air from the industrialized midwest of North America into northern Canada and the Arctic Ocean are not uncommon.

The rapid transport of radioactive contaminants from Chernobyl in the southwestern U.S.S.R. to northern Scandinavia, and its incorporation into vegetation and the flesh of reindeer, is a recent unfortunate but convincing demonstration of the effectiveness of transport of pollutants from southern latitudes into the Arctic. Careful analysis of impurities in snow from various parts of arctic Canada, Alaska, and Spitzbergen has shown that some of the chemicals whose origin can be identified with reasonable confidence have come from industrial sources in western Europe and the western Soviet Union, or from agricultural chemicals typically used in India and southeast Asia.

By the marine route, pollutants reach the Arctic through one major point of entry, the northeast Atlantic. Chemically stable or slow-reacting pollutants from industrialized eastern North America are carried by winds or rivers into the Atlantic Ocean and then northward by the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift into the Arctic Ocean. Augmented by drainage and winds from Europe and by north-flowing Siberian rivers, they are carried under the arctic ice where they remain protected from sunlight and vigorous oxygenation which otherwise would hasten their chemical break-down. By these means, much of the far-travelled and persistent waste products of the industrialized world appear to be ultimately deposited in arctic regions. A portion of these, to which may be added materials deposited directly from the atmosphere, becomes incorporated in the upper layers of Arctic Ocean waters and returned to the Northwest Atlantic, where they sink to lower ocean depths and are carried slowly southward as the Atlantic Deep Water Current, eventually spreading at depth throughout the World Ocean.

 Arctic Haze

 About 1950, a thin but persistent brown haze became apparent in the previously very clear arctic skies of northern Alaska and the western Canadian Arctic in late winter and early spring. The phenomenon increased and became more widespread, and was dubbed "arctic haze". The haze is now a frequent but varying springtime feature from north Greenland across the arctic coasts of Canada and Alaska, and is occasionally seen in eastern Siberia.

Although the absolute concentration of pollutants in arctic haze today is less than that of city smog, levels of suspended particles in the atmosphere in northernmost Canada have been found to be 20 to 40 times as high in winter as in summer. Chemical analysis has shown that the haze consists of particles of largely industrial origin, mostly soot, hydrocarbons, and sulphates. Studies suggest that it commonly originates in heavily polluted air that contains large amounts of soot or carbon whose energy-absorbing properties allow discrete air masses to remain aloft in the very cold arctic atmosphere and travel tens of thousands of kilometres across the Arctic Ocean at the edge of the zone of advancing spring sunlight. Upon reaching the North American Arctic, the haze particles appear to be deposited, the carbon darkening the snow slightly and hastening melting, the sulphates adding a little acidity to the already naturally acid waters, and the small but possibly significant amount of toxic metals adding to the pollutant load in these areas.

 From present evidence, it does not appear that arctic haze has a significant deleterious effect on the environment, except that the warming of the air through sunlight absorption by the haze may directly affect weather patterns in the northern hemisphere. But the phenomenon bears careful watching, and is a conspicuous example of how a variety of activities in different countries can affect environmental quality in distant parts of the globe.

Stratospheric Ozone

The layer in the upper atmosphere that is slightly enriched in ozone (03) and which acts as a filter to prevent damaging ultra-violet and other solar radiation from reaching the earth's surface in concentrations greater than that to which living organisms have been accustomed has been thinning over most parts of the planet over the last two decades-or as long as accurate measurements have been available.

 Over southern Canada, the decrease has been three or four per cent. During the past 10 years, however, dramatic decreases-as much as 50 per cent- have been observed over Antarctica for a period of about two months in late winter-the so-called Antarctic ozone hole. In 1986, a similar but smaller area of decreased ozone concentration was discovered in the Arctic. No depletion was observed in 1987 or 1988, but the "hole" reappeared in 1989. Some of these variations may be due to natural causes, but careful research in both polar regions shows that much of the change must be due to industrial chemicals, mainly chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), together with related compounds known as halons, and other "ozone-depleting" chemicals widely used all over the globe. The ozone decrease is greatest in the polar regions because in intensely cold air masses (below -85C), ice clouds form in the ozone layer, providing nuclei that facilitate the chemical reactions that destroy ozone. The increased solar radiation that can reach the surface through a depleted ozone layer can cause skin cancer, eye cataracts in humans and other animals; suppress immune system response; damage shallow-dwelling marine organisms; and inhibit germination of seeds. The potential seriousness of these effects is such that an international agreement to control substances that may damage the ozone layer was signed in Vienna in 1985. This was followed by a protocol drawn up in Montreal in 1988 to reduce use of CFCs by 50 per cent by 1999, and further strengthened by an agreement reached in Helsinki in 1989. Most industrialized countries have now ratified the Montreal protocol, but it is already apparent that the provisions are not stringent or comprehensive enough, and several countries, including Canada, have made commitments to cease manufacture and phase out use of CFCs and other ozone destroying chemicals by the end of the present century.

 The depletion of ozone over the Arctic in late winter itself probably has minor environmental or biological effects, but it is a dramatic symbol and important monitor of a global environmental trend and a potentially serious biological, economic and health problem. The arctic ozone depletion therefore has great significance for the world environment, and for human health and the economy.

Toxic Substances in the Arctic

 The accumulation of toxic substances in the arctic terrestrial, aquatic, and marine ecosystems represents a potentially serious threat to the regional environment. Toxic compounds, particularly organochlorines and some heavy metals, have been found in potentially worrying amounts in snow, waters, and organisms in arctic North America, Greenland, and Svalbard. The organochlorines (e.g., dioxins, furans, PCBs) accumulate in fatty tissue or bone marrow; and because arctic animals consume, and develop, considerable fatty tissue in order to conserve heat, and depend on reserves of marrow during periods of inactivity or hibernation, some remarkably high concentrations of toxins can result through short and simple food chains.

Toxic metals are also a worry. Seals in some parts of the Arctic carry large body burdens of mercury and cadmium, apparently, but not certainly, from natural sources, and this contamination is passed to bears and humans. The liver, fatty tissue, and milk of polar bears and whales from many parts of the Arctic have shown an increased level of chemicals from modern pesticides and herbicides over the past three decades, although comparisons with the past are not very reliable because earlier sampling and analytical techniques were not as accurate as those of today. There is evidence that since 1986 in some arctic mammals the levels of certain polychlorinated hydrocarbons whose use in North America is now regulated have decreased, suggesting that the arctic environment responds quite rapidly to environmental control practices in lower latitudes. Such changes further confirm the sensitivity of arctic ecosystems to pollution, even from distant sources-a change in either direction has an effect on the Arctic.

The human physiological response to the accumulation of toxic materials in the arctic environment is a cause for concern. Northern residents eat a higher proportion of "country food", particularly fatty meats, than most of their counterparts in lower latitudes. Because the fatty meats and organs of both marine and terrestrial animals in the Arctic are major concentrators of organochlorines and heavy metals, serious amounts of toxic contaminants may be accumulated by human populations.

 Careful study of the diets and chemical physiology of residents in arctic communities has shown that persons whose diet includes a high percentage of local meat have, in fact, a higher level of identifiable "chemicals used only in the South" (i.e., from agricultural pesticides) in their body tissues and mothers' milk than those who import most of their food from the South. In Canada, this situation is not yet serious; but it needs to be watched carefully.

 Radioactivity in the Arctic

The problem of radioactive contamination of the arctic environment raises atmospheric, biological, and human health issues. The arctic regions, especially Alaska, northern Canada, and Greenland, received measurable amounts of radioactive fallout from the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the 1960s and early 1970s. This radioactivity is still present in the slow growing lichens and mosses upon which caribou and reindeer feed. and adult Inuit from the affected regions carry body burdens of radioactivity higher than the North American average. The comparatively small amount of radioactivity that was released to the environment in the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl was deposited over a wide area; but the effect of the fallout was relatively greatest in northern Scandinavia, where the meat of animals who grazed on the affected vegetation was declared unfit for human consumption and the effect on the local economy and culture was devastating. These incidents show how the arctic environment and its inhabitants are particularly sensitive to events and influences from other parts of the world.

There are deposits of radioactive minerals of potential economic importance in arctic Canada, Finland, and the Soviet Union. None of these has yet been developed. Because of the vulnerability of arctic ecosystems, and because of international attention to the opposition by local residents and environmentalists to exploitation of the deposits, special environmental assessments and controls, which will take into account international aspects of local decisions, may be needed.

 Protection of arctic marine waters from radioactive contamination poses special problems. It has been reported, without verification, that spent radioactive fuel from nuclear engines was disposed of in sub-arctic waters; but it has also been stated that this practice, if it once was carried out, has been discontinued. It is likely that an increasing number-perhaps before long the majority-of vessels plying the Arctic Ocean will be nuclear-powered; although in normal operation these should pose no radioactive hazard to the environment, in the event of accident there is a risk of oceanic contamination by highly radioactive substances in positions where removal or protection will be very difficult. Recent accidents to nuclear-powered submarines in sub arctic waters have drawn international attention to a problem which could be even more difficult in higher latitudes.

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