A Toxic Threat Reaches a Remote Arctic Island

Bear Island's fish, walruses, and other wildlife face contamination from PCBs that have made their way to Norway's far north.
(Photo: Jenny Bytingsvik/Fram Center)
Oct 20, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

You might think few Arctic locales are more isolated from the rest of the world than Bear Island, which sits about midway between mainland Norway and the Svalbard archipelago.

But since 1604, when English whalers arrived to hunt walruses, the 110-square-mile island has seen a stream of human visitors.

Over the 17th and 18th centuries, Bear Island's walrus, seal, seabird, and fox populations were depleted by a succession of English and Russian hunters. (Despite the name, polar bears are rare visitors to the island.) Germans mined the island's coal seams during the 19th century, followed by Norwegians, who also used it as a whaling base into the early 20th century.

Norway banned walrus hunting on Bear Island in 1952, and the island became a nature reserve in 2003. The sheer cliffs along its coastline are among the Arctic's most important havens for seabirds.

Despite these protections, the island is in the crosshairs of economic development and climate change. As the burning of fossil fuels continues to thaw the Arctic, more tourists and ships are making their way to the Svalbard region.

Bear Island. (Photo: Gary Bembridge/Flickr)

The Norwegian government has made clear its intention to lease oil and gas drilling sites in areas where the sea ice no longer reliably appears each winter. Some of the proposed lease sites are due east of Bear Island, where ocean currents would transport spilled oil westward, said Erlend Tellnes of Greenpeace Norway. According to the state oil company's analysis, he noted, “if there was a major spill close to the Bear Island leasing area, it would take about a week for the oil to reach the island.”

On Monday, the Oslo city council took indirect aim at the national government’s oil and gas policies by announcing that Oslo would become the world's first capital city to divest all oil, coal, and gas investments from its $9 billion pension fund.

“The galloping pace of climate change demands that we make tough choices,” read the official declaration.

At a climate change conference in Oslo last week, United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres said that nations and corporations should leave most the world’s remaining untapped fossil fuels buried—including all Arctic oil and gas.

“Someone must make that decision,” she told the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. Last year Figueres called on Norway to close its active coal mines on Svalbard.

RELATED: How Obama's Two-Year Halt on Arctic Drilling Still Leaves the Waters in Jeopardy

Anita Evenset, a marine biologist at the University of Tromsø—The Arctic University of Norway, is documenting another human-caused threat to the island and its wildlife: toxic pollution.

In research published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, Evenset and her colleagues reported that the population of Arctic char landlocked in Bear Island’s Lake Ellasjøen contains some of the highest levels of toxic persistent organic pollutants found above the Arctic Circle.

The study found that the Arctic char in Lake Ellasjøen had up to 36 times more polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in their body tissues as the same species in Lake Laksvatn, near Bear Island's northern coast. Female Arctic char in Lake Ellasjøen also showed higher levels of hexachlorobenzene in 2009 and 2012 than they had in 1999 and 2001 and had six times the amount of organohalogenated compounds in their ovaries that they had in their muscle tissue.

Beyond the Arctic, most of the Arctic char that show up on dinner plates have been farmed. The Seafood Choices Alliance lists the fish as “an ocean-friendly substitute for farmed Atlantic salmon,” while the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch rates farmed char a “best choice.”

But the toxic contamination found in the Arctic char of Lake Ellasjøen have implications for other freshwater environments in the Arctic, Evenset said. PCBs are known to cause cancer, developmental defects, and reproductive problems in other animals and humans that may consume them.

The sources of the pollution, said Evenset, are the flocks of kittiwakes and glaucous gulls that come to Bear Island's southern tip to rest on Lake Ellasjøen but that are absent in the north.

Persistent pollutants travel to the Arctic on wind and water currents from industrial facilities, farms, and other sources in Russia, Asia, Europe, and North America. Once there, they settle on the land, ice, and water and enter the food chain. The birds ingest the toxic compounds when they prey on ocean fish and then poop out the pollutants into Lake Ellasjøen, contaminating the Arctic char—which are so toxic, Evenset said, that the staff at the weather station at Herwighamna, on the north coast, are prohibited from fishing in the lake for food.

Since 2001 an international agreement has led many nations to phase out numerous solvents, pesticides, and other substances containing persistent organic pollutants. But not all. “We need the chemicals in the world we live in,” said Evenset. “So some will always be used despite negative ecological effects.”

Because they decompose very slowly in the environment, organohalines show up in wildlife populations—and in the tissues of people who eat those animals—many years after their use. They are particularly long lasting in the Arctic, Evenset noted. “In warmer areas they evaporate,” she said, “but in low temperatures they condense and break down much more slowly.”