Pollution in the Arctic Ocean: An overview of multiple causes and effects

Arctic ecosystems and their species are subject to a wide range of pressures from human activities, including the exposure to complex mixture of pollutants, climate change, and fisheries. The pressures from increased anthropogenic activity are exacerbated by climate change, which has affected the Arctic more severely than many temperate regions. International policies are attempting to support sustainable exploitation of the Arctic resources with the aim of balancing both human and environmental well-being. Managing multiple pressures in the Arctic is particularly challenging due to international and geopolitical interests, complex legislation, and regulation in the region. Plus, melting ice is opening new Arctic shipping routes, with associated risks from oil spills and microplastics releases. There are many different agents, receptors, routes to exposure and endpoints, as well as scales, acting simultaneously, which need to be considered.

In this context, the Arctic Council was established in 1996 to address pan-Arctic regulatory and management concerns. The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum established to promote cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic states (e.g.: Canada, Finland, Sweden, etc), indigenous people, and other arctic inhabitants. The Arctic Council has scientific working groups that treat relevant monitoring data (Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme – AMAP, 2018). There are also working groups aimed at reducing Arctic pollution (Arctic Contaminants Action Program – ACAP, 2020). Individually, the working groups provide information on pressures and effects of a variety of pollutants on biogeochemical cycles, and on flora and fauna populations, which will later help on decision making policies.

Piece of plastic, found on Artic shows how long the polution spreads (source: @ConorMcPhoto)

In silico tools and techniques are being used to perform chemical risk assessments for the changing Arctic Ocean. Figure 1 shows silico tools and methodologies to carry out a chemical risk assessment for each of the risk assessment stages. The lack of models that are specifically designed to inform regulatory decision-making and management of pollutant impacts means that a combination of models must be used to address different aspects of questions. The Ecotracer models have the potential to be the ideal tools for analysing the interplay of nutrient and chemical pollution from a regulatory and management perspective. This is particularly relevant in the context of the Arctic Ocean due to the seasonality in primary productivity brought by seasonal changes in sunlight and sea ice cover. There is currently only one model that allows for the combined analysis of chemical, physical, and ecological pressures and their implications for marine ecosystems. pressões químicas, físicas e ecológicas e as suas implicações para os ecossistemas marinhos.

Silico tools and methodologies to perform a chemical risk assessment. Adapted from van Leeuwen (2007) and Reppas Chrysovitsinos (2017)

Marine pollution may have direct impacts on kelp forests along Arctic coastlines and subsequent indirect impacts on multiple ecosystem services that they support. Contamination of coastal areas can, therefore, lead to substantial negative socio-economic impacts on the tourism and recreational industries.

Presently, there are no fully effective models that allow to evaluate multiple pollution pressures simultaneously that span nutrient and organic/inorganic contaminants. Ecotracer can serve as a screening-level risk characterization tool to bring together data on hazard, exposure, and effects. There are already efforts underway to assess the effects of contaminants on fish and Arctic wildlife, and previous work has emphasised the need for the assessment of the long-term effects of chemicals on Arctic biota.

Townhill, B.L., Reppas-Chrysovitsinos, E., Sühring, R. et al. Pollution in the Arctic Ocean: An overview of multiple pressures and implications for ecosystem services. Ambio 51, 471–483 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-021-01657-0

Author: Cátia Gonçalves


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