2010 Feb.: Arctic pollutants come from all over the globe


Pollutants in the Arctic are largely introduced from sources around the globe carried by air and ocean currents. Only a small amount of pollutants originate in the Arctic. A recognized problem facing some regions in the Arctic has been the impact of contaminants from heavy metals and Persistent Organic Pollutants that enter the Arctic by aquatic and air pathways from other places in the world. Arctic haze and black carbon (soot) are also growing concerns. Both of these types of pollution can adversely impact human health and the marine ecosystem.

The major sources of pollution that may threaten the Arctic include:

Contaminants are transported to the Arctic through many pathways, including air, precipitation, ocean currents, rivers and ice. 

Transboundary Contaminants

© ACIA, 2004. Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment.

Air Pollution or Arctic Haze

This consists of tiny particles that can include dust and particulate matter, sulfates, ammonium, nitrate and black carbon. It can also include nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that are precursors to ozone. It’s named after the hazy appearance that these particles create as well as the dirty deposits that fall on snow and ice.

Major sources of air pollution include industrial activities such as shipping, smokestacks, diesel engines and large forest fires. The pollution that is generated contributes to health issues such as asthma and heart problems. According to a recent study, air emissions from increased shipping through the Arctic could increase low lying ozone pollution in the region in summers to the same levels as industrial regions in temperate zones.

In addition to causing health issues, ozone and two other short-term climate change forcers – methane and black carbon – account for more than half of the warming in the Arctic. Methane traps over 20 times the heat of carbon dioxide. The depleted ozone layer reduces the atmosphere’s overall reflectivity while black carbon rests on top of snow and ice, decreasing the ice’s ability to reflect sunlight.

Reducing the sources of methane, ozone, and black carbon emissions would have immediate positive effects in the Arctic and longer-term benefits for the rest of the planet.

Ocean Garbage and Sewage

More and more ships, including cruise lines, will be using the ice-free waters of the Northwest Passage and the Arctic increasing the amount of discharged garbage and sewage. Garbage may be accidentally swept off a boat or intentionally dumped. Anti-dumping enforcement and regulations are needed to prevent this pollution.

Invasive Species

Ballast water is stored in a ship’s hull that could have been collected in another ocean and then brought to the Arctic. Ships will discharge their ballast water at new ports, therefore introducing any potential species picked up in their port of origin and releasing them into the Arctic.

This presents a serious risk to the Arctic because it has a low diversity of species. New, invasive forms of life are able to thrive without established predators and can often overtake native populations, out-competing them for food sources.


More frequent vessel traffic, seismic testing for oil and gas, and other industrial activities will increase noise pollution in the Arctic. Noise can impact marine life in the following ways:

  • Interferes with communications, including ability to recognize each other, avoid predators, capture prey, navigate and orient themselves, choose mates and bonding between mothers and offspring.
  • Masks natural sounds since background noise makes it difficult to distinguish important auditory information.
  • Causes physical harm and injury including loss of hearing.
  • Disrupts behavior including separating mothers and offspring and forcing marine life to abandon important habitat.

Increased acidification of Arctic seas from climate change may actually make noise pollution worse because more acidic ocean water allows noise to travel further.

Ship Strikes

Whales’ migratory routes can correspond with shipping routes, increasing the likelihood that vessels will strike and injure or kill them. The relatively slow-moving, large mammals are often the victims of ship strikes in other busy ports around the world.


ACIA. 2004. Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. Cambridge University Press. http://www.acia.uaf.edu/pages/scientific.html.

Hansen, J., M. Sato, R. Reudy, K. Lo, D.W. Lea, and M. Medina-Elizade. 2006. Global temperature change. PNAS 103(39):14288-14293.

Law, K. and A. Stohl. 2007. Arctic Air Pollution: Origins and Impacts. Science. 315:1537-1540.

MMC. 2007. Marine mammals and noise: A sound approach to research and management. A report to Congress from the Marine Mammal Commission. March. 187 pp.

Quinn P, T Bates, E Baum, N Doubleday, A Fiore et al. 2008. Short-lived pollutants in the Arctic: their climate impact and possible mitigation strategies. Atmos. Chem. Phys 8:1723-35.

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