Human-induced pollution and waste are pervasive in the Arctic, affecting everything from the health of human and animal populations to the integrity of permafrost. While the most widespread pollutants in the Arctic are heavy metals (e.g. mercury and lead) and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) (e.g. DDT, PCBs, and dioxins), black carbon and potent greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane are also a significant problem alongside high levels of plastic pollution
The contamination of freshwater, flora, and fauna by heavy metals, whether from mining and drilling operations or thawing permafrost, poses great risks to public health problem in the Arctic.
One of the most concerning heavy metals is mercury. While local industrial activities such as small-scale gold mining can be the source of mercury pollution in the Arctic environment, most mercury that ends up in the Arctic travels there by means of wind and water from sources thousands of kilometres away, such as coal power plants in Asia, to take but one example. A 2021 study on mercury concentrations in Russia’s Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug found that up to 93 percent of the mercury deposited in the Arctic comes from intercontinental transport. Mercury and other toxic pollutants accumulate in the food chain, contaminating everything from the plankton eaten by Arctic fish to polar bears and seals – large predators who constitute the traditional diets of the Arctic’s indigenous communities – ultimately posing enormous threats to human health, including damage to the nervous system and a weakened immune system.
Like heavy metals, Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) can be transported over long distances via air and water and very few of them originate in the Arctic. Sometimes called "forever chemicals," POPs take a long time to degrade in the environment, especially in cold climates, like that of the Arctic, where they end up "trapped." Entering the environment from many different sources, including military sites and mines, many POPs originate in pesticides and insecticides. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) – one of the most well-known POPs – were once used widely in a range of applications, while dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), another well-known POP, is used to this day in some countries as an insecticide to protect against diseases, such as malaria and typhus, that are spread by mosquitoes. POPs are linked to severe health problems, including cancers, disruptions in the endocrine and reproductive systems, neurological problems, and diabetes, amongst others.
One of the main components of both naturally-occurring and anthropogenic soot, black carbon is responsible for up to a 25 percent of warming in the Arctic. Two of the most prominent natural sources of black carbon are wildfires and melting permafrost, which can occur separately, but also simultaneously in “zombie fires,” where wildfires cause underlying permafrost to thaw. Storing just under 1,700 billion metric tonnes of carbon, permafrost releases black carbon and the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide when it melts. While short-lived compared to carbon dioxide, black carbon and methane are 25 times more potent in terms of contribution to Arctic warming, which only amplifies the problem of thawing permafrost through a process called permafrost carbon feedback.
Finally, shining a spotlight on immense problems in waste management systems worldwide, plastic pollution – from beach litter to microplastics – affects the whole of the Arctic, having made its way into everything from the seafloor to ice. Plastic litter can be found on most beaches of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, the seabed of the Barents Sea, and many other remote and fragile Arctic habitats. It is estimated that the Arctic has been polluted with 79,000 tonnes of litter (an average of 194 pieces per square kilometre), the vast majority of which is made of plastic. A 2021 study on the pervasiveness of polyester fibres in the Arctic Ocean also found microplastics in 96 of 97 sea water samples taken from across the region, and experts maintain that there are now around 40 microplastic particles per every cubic metre of Arctic water – a risk for the health of both natural ecosystems and human populations.
As one of the first forums to acknowledge the need to take concrete actions to address pollution in the Arctic, the Arctic Council actively promotes sustainable development, monitors Arctic contamination, and raises awareness of the serious and wide-ranging impact of said contamination on fragile ecosystems. These efforts, done largely through the Council’s Working Groups, inform both national and international policy decisions and ongoing efforts, including the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), contributing to stricter regulations, improved clean-up efforts, and better incentives to respect the environment.
The Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), for instance, has strongly informed the Arctic Council’s recommendations to other international bodies, contributing to the creation of agreements such as the UN ECE’s Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP), Protocol on Persistent Organic Pollutants, and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.
Similarly, the Task Force for Action on Black Carbon and Methane (TFBCM), developed during Canada’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council, created the Arctic Council Framework for Action: Enhanced Black Carbon and Methane Emissions Reductions (Framework for Action), which lays out a common vision for reducing emissions and delineates how these reductions will benefit both the climate and human health. Finally, the Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP), which exists to support national actions to reduce emissions in the Arctic has also seen important success: a pilot project in its Reduction of Black Carbon from Diesel Sources in the Russian Arctic initiative saw a Murmansk-based bus company decrease its black carbon emissions by 90 percent.