Svalbard is considered one of the cleanest places on the planet. Nevertheless, there are many local sources of pollution thanks to the presence of humans and activities like research, tourism and mining. In addition, contaminants are transported from far away by wind, ocean currents and ice across the Arctic Ocean. Many animals in the Arctic have disturbing amounts of contaminants in their bodies.
Pollution is gauged at the Zepelin Station in Ny Ålesund. Photo: Stein Ø. Nilsen / Norwegian Polar Institute
Old coalmines in Svalbard can create pollution in soil.\nPhoto: Tone Malm / tonemalm.smugmug.com
Hotelneset in Longyearbyen is location for the airport and the old shipping pier for coal. Photo: Stein Ø. Nilsen / tromsofoto.net
Much of the landscape is clean, yet there are still many contaminants
Only about 2500 people live in Svalbard, but there are still many sources of pollution in the archipelago. The presence of people and commercial activities like mining, tourism and research affect the environment and lead to emissions and discharges to the water, the air and the ground. All the settlements discharge sewage into the adjacent fjords. Fuel combustion to produce power and run motor vehicles, boats, snowmobiles, aircraft and helicopters generates air pollution. Some commercial enterprises also use machinery and chemicals containing substances that contaminate the environment. Ice, ocean currents and winds also bring many contaminants from far away.
Airborne contaminants have evaporated further south on the Earth. When they meet the cold arctic air, they condense and fall to the ground. In Svalbard, we can therefore find most known contaminants and other compounds that are not easily degradable in nature. Scientists estimate that some 90 per cent of all the pollution in the Arctic is far-transported. However, little is known about the importance of the local sources in comparison. Contaminants taken up in fish and seafood may harm people eating them.
Vulnerable community and species
Contaminants (or pollutants) are substances which nature cannot break down. This is why they can disperse over great distances. Arctic wildlife like polar bears, arctic foxes and glaucous gulls are at the top of their food chains and live on energy-rich food containing a great deal of fat. The contaminants are often bound in the blubber and are therefore taken up by animals through the food they eat. The substances then once more become bound in the body fat and accumulate over time. This explains how animals in the Arctic obtain unusually high levels of pollutants.
Polar bears are threatened by pollutants in the food they eat. Photo: Jon Aars, Norwegian Polar Institute
The animals store fat to survive long periods in winter without food, and when they are hungry, the fat begins to break down. The pollutants enter their blood stream and can be so excessive that the animals die.
We know little of the effect of local pollution on the Svalbard environment and how much it contributes to the high levels of contaminants in some species here. However, when the wind direction is unfavourable, local atmospheric emissions, from power stations for example, give poor air quality in the settlements. All emissions, in any case, contribute to more pollution in the Arctic and the rest of the world.
Longyearbyen has a coal-fired power station and a sewerage system giving emissions to the air and discharges to the sea. Photo: Stein Ø. Nilsen / Norsk Polarinstitutt
Global and local settlement and industry
Winds and ocean currents transport pollution and contaminants to Svalbard from the Continent and America, and contaminants also come from industrial concerns on the large Russian rivers. These rivers flow into the Kara Sea and the Laptev Sea, and sea ice from there carries contaminants westwards into the Arctic Ocean. They leak out when the ice melts in the Barents Sea east of Svalbard and are taken up by animals and plants. Such long-transported pollution from other parts of the world will continue to affect the environment in Svalbard. The same applies to the settlements and local activities and industry. What we do to secure the contamination in the earth left by former mining and what we do with our rubbish are among the local challenges that require solutions.
BILDE AV PYRAMIDEN!
The soil in the abandoned mining settlement of Pyramiden is heavily contaminated.
Cleaning up, reduced emissions and discharges, agreements and research
The authorities aim to limit the contamination as far as possible, and several measures have been implemented:
• the Governor of Svalbard and the Russian mining company, Trust Arktikugol, have joined forces to get rid of the pollutant PCB. This has been accomplished in the other settlements
• every year, several trips are undertaken to clear rubbish from beaches, and residents and tourists join in
• industry, power generation and waste handling are regulated through emission and discharge permits, and demands for measures to limit the pollution
• special plans exist for what to do with the rubbish in the settlements
• Norwegian authorities work with other nations to document and reduce the discharge and emission of pollutants and other forms of contamination that reach the Arctic
• the EU Dangerous Substances Directive aims to help reduce the discharge and emission of pollutants