A seal caught in a fishing net.
A seal caught in a fishing net. © iStock

Addressing Arctic pollution

While most regions of the Arctic are far removed from large industrialized areas, the environment in the high North carries the traces of human-induced pollution – from soot to plastics, from methane to pesticides. To an extent, pollutants originate in the Arctic for example through wood combustion or oil and gas flaring. Yet, many contaminants are transported over long distances, traveling to the high latitudes via rivers, oceans, and the air – where they can have far reaching negative impacts on the environment and human health.

Several of the Arctic Council’s Working Groups are closely monitoring and addressing the impacts of pollutants and contaminants on the Arctic ecosystems. Their findings have raised awareness on the serious implications of pollution in the Arctic and contributed to both national actions and international conventions.

Persistent organic pollutants (POPS) and mercury

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are chemicals of global concern because they can potentially be transported over long distances, remain in the environment, accumulate in ecosystems, and have significant negative effects on human health and the environment. Humans are exposed to these chemicals in a variety of ways, mainly through contaminated food and polluted air. Many everyday products can contain POPs, such as flame retardants or detergents. As a result, POPs can be found virtually everywhere on the planet in measurable concentrations.

Since its establishment in 1991, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) has documented the extent and effects of pollution in the Arctic and tracked new developments in order to inform policy decisions. Its assessments have contributed significantly to the negotiation of international 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’.

The Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP) assesses the emissions of POPs in local factories, develops inventories of emission sources, and promotes the decrease of pollution with local authorities, businesses, trade organizations and environmental stakeholders.

Black carbon and methane

The short-lived climate pollutants black carbon and methane are contributing to atmospheric warming. In addition, black carbon that falls on snow and ice accelerates the melting of these reflective surfaces and consequently global warming. Black carbon and methane emissions also contribute directly to air pollution that harms human health.

Due to their proximity to the Arctic, Arctic States are uniquely positioned to slow Arctic warming caused by emissions of black carbon: despite generating just ten percent of global black carbon emissions, Arctic States are responsible for 30 percent of black carbon’s warming effects in the Arctic.

AMAP has monitored black carbon and methane emissions and reported on their effects as Arctic climate forcers. Based on AMAP’s findings, ACAP has developed pilot projects that build capacity and demonstrate emission reduction activities. These projects are aimed at encouraging national actions to reduce emissions and releases of these pollutants.

The Council’s Expert Group on Black Carbon and Methane in turn has been tasked by the Arctic States to develop a biennial “Summary of Progress and Recommendations” based on the national reports and other relevant information. These reports contain recommendations for an aspirational collective goal on black carbon.

Marine Litter and waste management

Over the past years, marine litter has emerged as one of the most pervasive problems affecting the marine environment globally. The Arctic is no exception.


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