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Pollution of the "Pristine" Arctic

Summary of Problem in Press

rockies.jpg (15288 bytes)In a recent Toronto Star article (Calamai 2000a), David Schindler from the University of Alberta expressed his concerns about federal grants requiring equal funding from the private sector. Schindler cannot find private companies to help fund his research since he studies pollution. Schindler researches in Bow Lake in Banff National Park, a supposedly pristine lake in the Rockies that is fed by a glacial stream. Schindler's research team dug deep trenches into Bow glacier to sample the snowfall, later analyzing the presence of pesticides in the snow. They discovered that although many chemicals are banned in North America, these chemicals are deposited on the "pristine" glacier from as far away as California or Asia. Also, the glacier contains DDT and other organochlorines from the 1950's and 1960's. When the glacier melts, with global warming causing the front of the glacier to retreat more than a kilometre in the last twenty years, the trapped chemicals are released and flow into Bow Lake. Although there are low concentrations of pesticides in the lake, there is bioaccumulation up the food chain. Scientists in Europe are conducting similar studies in the Alps, and Schindler would like to continue his own research to study where the pesticides come from, how much is in the glacier and lake, and whether there are other pollutants present.

The Rockies are not the only supposedly pristine area affected by pollution; pollution is also a problem in the Arctic. A century ago, explorers observed an Arctic haze, but did not know what caused it. In the 1970's, scientists examined the chemistry of the Arctic haze and determined that it has a human origin. Using the proportions of lead isotopes in the haze as a chemical fingerprint, the scientists concluded that most of the pollution came from Russia and Eastern Europe (Phillips 1995). In a process called global distillation, pollutants volatize into the air in warmer areas and condense out of the air in colder areas, so these pollutants tend to be transferred from the South to the North. Pollutants such as PCBs are easily transferred this way. Also, pollutants that might decompose into less harmful chemicals do so slower in colder regions, so they tend to accumulate in the Arctic (Pearce 1997).

inuit.jpg (10263 bytes)Pollution is almost everywhere in the Arctic, with organochlorines, toxaphene, DDT, and heavy metals in every stage of the Arctic food chain (anon. 1998). The highest trophic levels are most affected by pollutants, with the chemicals bioaccumulating with each trophic level. In fact, the levels of PCBs in the breast milk of the Inuit are five times as much as in Quebec. This is because PCBs are fat soluble and concentrate in the mammal fat that is part of the Inuit diet (Park 1991). A study of the Lake Michigan region in 1996 revealed that children who were exposed to PCBs in the womb had a lower IQ, poorer memory, a shortened attention span, and more difficulties learning to read than other children (Pearce 1997). A more recent study of Inuit infants found that children whose mothers had the highest concentration of toxic chemicals in their breast milk were more vulnerable to infections (Calamai 2000b).

Although air pollution levels have decreased at Alert, N.W.T. recently (Phillips 1995), pollution is still a problem in the Arctic, especially with pollutants melting out of glaciers with global warming. 

Ecological Background to Problem

oildrum.jpg (9511 bytes)Although most people view the Arctic as pristine lands unaffected by human activities, pollution in the Arctic is a big problem. Scientists agree that the level of contamination in Arctic food webs is "alarming". Some trace metals have reached concentrations in mammal tissues that exceed levels the Environmental Protection Agency predicts will cause organ malfunction (Davis 1996). Pollution sources include the transport of organohalogens by global distillation; oil and gas drilling and coal and metal-ore mining throughout the Arctic; and dumping of radioactive wastes in the Arctic Ocean by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Arctic is especially vulnerable to pollutants because of their slow degradation in the cold Arctic environment (Jaffe et. al. 1994).

One aspect of Arctic pollution that has been studied is the Arctic haze, a high concentration of airborne particles between October and May (Cheng et. al. 1993). This haze can include lead (France and Blais 1998), coplanar PCBs (the most toxic kind), polychlorinated naphthalenes (used in many countries as oil additives or electrical insulators) (Harner et. al. 1998), or other chlorinated pollutants that may be present as a gas or associated with particles (Larsson et. al. 1990). In addition to adding pollutants to the Arctic environment (Rahn 1984), the Arctic haze can change the albedo and optical depth, increasing the amount of energy at the surface of the Earth (Penkett 1984), which can increase melting of the snow and ice. A similar effect was observed by Welch et. al. (1991) when a long-range transport event deposited a large amount of fine particles in the central Canadian Arctic. In areas where the snow had turned brown from the deposition, the snow melted, although air temperatures were below freezing. With increased melting, pollutants that were trapped in the snow and ice can be released and be available for uptake by Arctic organisms. In the long-range transport event observed by Welch et. al., the brown snow contained more than just dust: it contained pollutants such as PCBs, DDT, and other herbicides and insecticides.

arcticocean.jpg (8461 bytes)A study by Blais et. al. (1998) found that organochlorine concentrations increased with increasing altitude in the Rocky Mountains. This is because the organochlorines tend to condense out of the air in colder regions. The same applies to Arctic areas, with increasing deposition at higher latitudes. However, Gregor and Gummer (1989) found lower concentrations of pollutants in areas that received more local precipitation.

Although it can be difficult to determine where Arctic pollution has come from, with air masses transporting pollutants a long distance, France and Blais (1998) collected Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositofolia - a vascular plant) along transects on Ellesmere island to determine the influx pathway of lead pollution. They determined that much of the lead is from Eurasia. Galperin et. al. (1995) found that sulphur and nitrogen pollutants came to the Arctic mainly from Russia and Europe, and only a small portion came from North America.

When scientists detected pollutants in the Arctic, they still had to demonstrate that the pollutants were taken up by organisms. Larsson et. al. (1990) found that voles, shrews, and dragonflies contained higher levels of pollutants where there had been greater deposition of those pollutants. They thought that with an increase in pollutants deposited from the atmosphere, there would be an increased uptake of those pollutants by plants. The herbivores would then incorporate the pollutants by eating vegetation with pollutants either on its surface or in its tissues. Chapin and Shaver (1996) found that dominant Arctic plant species may live for decades: this means they may accumulate much pollutants in their life.

seal.jpg (6342 bytes)Other scientists studied the presence of pollutants in various organisms. Miskimmin et. al. (1995) found that toxaphene, an organochlorine once used as a pesticide and fish toxicant, was still present in a treated lake after thirty-two years. It was also present in fish in the lake. France et. al. found pollutants such as PCBs, DDT, chlorobenzenes, and toxaphene in Saxifrage on Ellesmere Island, and France and Blais (1998) found that lead concentrations in Saxifrage were three times higher in the northern than the southern regions of the island. Kidd et. al. (1998) found that in fish such as lake trout, burbot, and northern pike, organochlorine concentrations were correlated with trophic position and lipid content. Although other studies had found a correlation between size and/or age and concentration of contaminants, in this study the relationship did not hold. Other studies had also found that there were different concentrations of organochlorines in salmonid species depending on if muscle or the whole body was sampled: concentrations are lower in muscle since it contains less lipid. In a previous study of Lake Laberge in the Yukon Territory, Kidd et. al. (1995) had found high concentrations of toxaphene and other organochlorine compounds in fish. The concentrations were correlated with trophic position, and the highest concentrations were found in fish from lakes with long food chains, where more bioaccumulation of the contaminants occurred. Other researchers studied the accumulation of organochlorine pesticides, trace metals, and PCBs in zooplankton (Davis 1996).

arcticplant.jpg (21788 bytes)Some studies suggested using other chemicals as indicators of pollution. France et. al. (1997) found that cesium-137 was correlated with organochlorine concentrations in Saxifrage. Since cesium-137 is easier to measure, the authors suggested using it as an environmental monitor. Kidd et. al. (1995) suggested using stable nitrogen isotope ratios to indicate trophic level in freshwater organisms, which could indicate which lakes had the longest food chains and thus were more likely to bioaccumulate organochlorines.

Davis (1996) points out that despite there being concern around the world over pollution in polar regions, there have been relatively few studies on Arctic pollution. Although researchers found PCBs and trace metals in sea ice, few studies have examined the transportation of pollutants by ice floes. Also, the contribution of contaminants to Arctic ecosystems by melt water has been studied little. He also calls for the establishment of baseline levels so that present and future pollution can be quantified. Clearly, there is a great need for further research into Arctic pollution.

Research Proposal (hypothetical - study not actually done)

lichen.jpg (17394 bytes)Although scientists have measured pollutant levels in Arctic areas, and have measured pollutant levels in species of animals, few studies have concentrated on plants. Plant productivity is important for supporting the herbivores that feed on them, and the carnivores that feed on the herbivores, so any decrease in plant productivity from pollutants will affect the amount of food that is available to the ecosystem. The size of plants may also be important for shelter, and which species are affected more by pollutants may affect community dynamics. In addition, the concentration of pollutants in plant tissues is important because the higher the concentration in the plants, the higher the concentration in the herbivores, and the higher the concentration in the top predators of the ecosystem, including humans. My research will concentrate on one set of pollutants, PCBs, and will concentrate on one trophic level, plants. I plan to determine the concentration of PCBs in the snow each winter in a supposedly pristine Arctic area; the concentration of PCBs in a nearby glacier, which may melt with global warming and release the chemicals into the soil; what concentration of PCBs has what negative effects on plants; and which local plants are most affected by PCBs. My research will provide the background information on effects of PCBs on Arctic plants, which will hopefully provide a basis for future solutions to the problem of Arctic pollution. My research will also draw attention to this significant problem, helping people to realize that pollution affects areas which we generally think of as being pristine, having negative effects on the Arctic flora and fauna.


In the spring, my two student assistants and I will travel to a remote Arctic area. While there, we will collect seeds from the most common plants growing in the area. We will also take the temperature, and collect soil samples, to best reproduce the plants' growing conditions back at the lab. In the lab, we will grow the seeds for four months, in growing conditions (ie. temperature, light, soil type) that are reasonably close to that in the wild. We will subject the plants to various concentrations of PCBs in water that is added to each plant pot; these concentrations will range from zero for the control to concentrations slightly higher than the highest we might expect to find in the field. We will measure height of the plants and make qualitative notes about the condition of the plants over time. At the end of six months, we will note the number of seeds produced by each plant and measure the total biomass of each plant. We will also analyze the concentration of PCBs in the plant tissue. We will then analyze the height, seed number, and biomass measurements using statistical computer programs. This will show any correlations between pesticide concentration and health of the plant, differences in pesticide effects between species (which could be important for community dynamics), and qualitatively at what point the plants are significantly affected by the pesticides.


buttercup.jpg (14173 bytes)For part two of the experiment, my two student assistants and I will travel to the same remote Arctic area in the winter. We will collect core samples from the nearby glacier and collect snow from the unglaciated area. This will be done in winter so that we do not miss collecting snow, containing freshly deposited pollutants, that will melt in the spring and enter the ground. We will then take these samples back to the laboratory, allow them to melt, and use a spectrometer to measure the concentrations of pesticides present in the samples. The concentrations present in the snow represent pollutants that are added to the ecosystem annually. Concentrations present in the glacier snow and ice represent pollutants that will potentially be added to the soil as the glacier melts with global warming. We can compare the concentrations present in the snow and glacier snow/ice with the level of toxicity to the various plants at that concentration. This will allow us to estimate the decrease in plant productivity with the addition of these pesticides.


The first item on my budget is two round-trip flights to the Arctic research station. Two student assistants and myself will make the trip. The first trip is in the spring, when we will collect seed and soil samples for two days. The second trip is in the winter, when we will take snow samples and ice cores. In the spring, we will be camping at the sampling site, so we need to use local transportation from the research station for only one round trip. This will require the rental of 3 all-terrain vehicles plus fuel. In the winter, we will be staying at the research station, so we will need transportation for two round trips from the research station, one for each day of sampling. For this we will need to rent 3 snowmobiles plus fuel. The next item on the budget is payment for use of the research station for two days during the winter sampling. We then need camping supplies for the spring study. This includes a tent, three sleeping bags, a stove, and fuel. For the winter study we need extra blankets and fuel. If the students do not have appropriate winter clothing, I may also need to subsidize their purchase. We will also need food for three people for a total of four days during sampling.

For sampling of the plant seeds and of the soil we will need plastic bags. We will also need a small garden shovel to dig up some soil. To take snow and ice samples, we will need plastic containers and larger plastic bags. We will need an ice corer to take samples of the glacier. For both sampling trips we will need coolers to keep the samples in.

The next item on the budget is plant growth supplies. We need to purchase pots and the appropriate soil and fertilizer, free of PCBs and other chemicals, to simulate the soil at the sampling site. We need a refrigerator to keep the plants at the temperatures they experience at the sampling site, not room temperature. To analyze the soil properties we need an oven to determine soil moisture and a soil sieve to determine the size of the soil particles. In order to analyze the snow and ice for the presence of PCBs, we need a spectrometer. To analyze our data we need a computer and statistical software.

I have decided to pay the students $10.00 an hour. I will need them to help me for 96 hours on the two sampling trips, 10 hours a week for the 8-month school year, and 20 hours a week for the 4-month summer break. Part of my research grant will also go to York University to cover laboratory space and overhead.

Finally, my budget allows for miscellaneous supplies such as paper, pens, etc. I also allow some money for emergencies. This may include replacement of broken equipment, purchase of supplies I did not foresee needing for my research, or emergency transportation if an injury or illness occurs at the study site.

Budget (table 1)

Transportation to research station
Local transportation
Rent (research station)
Base/Camping supplies
Sampling supplies
Sampling equipment
Plant growth supplies
Plant growth equipment
Analyzing equipment
Wages for student assistants
Miscellaneous supplies + emergency funds
Laboratory, overhead (portion of grant to York University)
Total Research Cost:



Press Release (hypothetical)

polarbear.jpg (10343 bytes)Picture the Arctic: do you envision an environment untainted by man? Unfortunately, this traditional view of the Arctic does not hold. Pollution is a problem in the Arctic, with levels of pollutants higher than in southern areas because of transport by air currents. Pollutants such as PCBs, pesticides, and heavy metals can accumulate from plants to the animals that eat them to the animals that eat them, reaching dangerous levels in top predators. This includes the Inuit, who consume large amounts of contaminants in whale blubber, their traditional food. Although the pollution of the Arctic is a problem, it has only been recognized in the last couple of decades, so studies of the problem are lacking. Also, most studies have looked at the presence of pollutants in the environment and in animals, and very few have looked at the effects of pollution on Arctic plants. When pollution affects plants, this can reduce the amount of food available for the animals that feed on them, as well as transfer pollutants from the soil and water to animals. Some species may also be affected differently by pollutants, so some may go extinct. However, the effects of pollution on various Arctic plant species are not known. Also, few studies have examined the release of pollutants from melting ice. Suzanne Currie, Nobel prize-winning scientist, and her York University laboratory plan to examine the presence of PCBs in an Arctic glacier as well as study the effects of PCBs on various Arctic plant species. This work will contribute to the much-needed information on Arctic pollution, so that solutions to this problem may one day be found.


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Calamai, Peter. 2000a. Pesticide research stymied: Ecologist. Toronto Star.

Calamai, Peter. 2000b (March 22). Chemical fallout hurts Inuit babies: Researchers link vulnerability to prenatal exposure. Toronto Star.

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Welch, Harold E., Derek C. G. Muir, Brian N. Billeck, W. Lyle Lockhart, Gregg J. Brunskill, Hedy J. Kling, Marvin P. Olson, and Richard M. Lemoine. 1991. Brown Snow: A Long-Range Transport Event in the Canadian Arctic. Environmental Science & Technology. 25(2):280-286.

March 2000





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