Melting Arctic Ice Releases Stored Toxic Chemicals

Photo: Andy Tinkham / cc

As if the threat of rising sea-levels due to rising global temperatures weren't enough cause for concern, new research suggests that as arctic ice melts, it may be releasing much more than just water. According to researchers studying the melting polar caps, as snow cover dwindles as a result of climate change, toxic chemicals stored in the ice from decades of pollution are being 'remobilized' back into the atmosphere -- potentially exposing humans and wildlife to substances known to cause illness and death, for decades to come.Persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which include such nasty compounds as DTD, lindane, and chlordane, were once commonly used in the agriculture industry as pesticides -- though scientists soon learned that these chemicals have grave consequences on human and environmental health. Ten years ago, POPs were largely banned worldwide, but the chemicals proved resilient and capable of long-range transport, which is why POPs can be detected even in places where they've never been used.

Ultimately, a significant amount of the POPs ended up in the cold, arctic regions where icy temperatures effectively 'trapped' the chemicals -- preventing them from being spread into the environment. But now, say researcher from Canada, Norway, and China, as that regions of the world experiences warming associated with climate change, those toxins are being released.

"Our results indicate that a wide range of POPs have been remobilized into the Arctic atmosphere over the past two decades as a result of climate change, confirming that Arctic warming could undermine global efforts to reduce environmental and human exposure to these toxic chemicals," write the team of scientists, as reported by The New York Times.

The report continues:

Jordi Dach, a scientist at the Barcelona, Spain-based Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research, said the new study provided convincing evidence of the long-suspected movement of POPs from Arctic reservoirs into the atmosphere.

The new study "demonstrates that climate change can remobilize POPs stored in water, snow, ice and presumably soils -- and that this process is already occurring in the Arctic region," he wrote in an essay accompanying the new study.

Eventually, Dachs said, atmospheric circulation patterns could carry the newly liberated POPs to other parts of the globe.

Despite years of relatively low levels of POPs detected, thanks to the arctic storage, the pollutants were never gone entirely. As global temperatures rise, with more and more ice sheets melting at the poles, the level of POPs re-released into the environment is bound to increase as well -- creating a lasting legacy which could impact generations to come, in more ways than one.

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