New Arctic Council Reports Underline the Growing Concerns About the Health and Climate Impacts of Polar Air Pollution

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The Arctic is now warming three times as fast as the global average, and faces an ongoing barrage of dangerous climate and environmental pollutants, Arctic Council experts warned at the start of their meetings in Reykjavik, Iceland this week. Black carbon, or soot, remains high on the list of concerns because of its negative effect on human health and because it accelerates the Arctic meltdown by darkening snow.

“Reducing black carbon and methane emissions is particularly important,” United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Thursday during the council’s closing session. He added that the U.S. has cut black carbon emissions by 34 percent, the most of any Arctic Council member nation.

Iceland Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson also said black carbon pollution is accelerating the breakdown of the Arctic environment.

“Without action, we will soon reach a dangerous turning point and the Arctic as we know it will be gone by the end of the century,” he said.

Carbon dioxide drives the long-term warming in the region, but other types of poorly regulated pollution also threatens people who live in the Arctic and the ecosystems they rely on, council science and policy experts said during the biennial meeting of representatives from the nations and tribes on the council. 

Growing Concern Over Plastics and ‘Forever Chemicals’

Updated reports from several of the council’s working groups highlighted black carbon from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and plants as an increasing problem. But it also presents an opportunity, they said, noting that reducing black carbon quickly could help to significantly slow Arctic melting over the next 20 to 30 years. 

Black carbon is part of a larger family of pollutants that includes methane and ozone. The heat-trapping effect of such short-lived climate pollutants don’t last long, but they have direct climate impacts, like darkening snow to make it melt faster, and pose a threat to human respiratory heath.

The council’s working group on human health also noted the growing threat to human health from the continued buildup of “persistent organic pollutants,” such as the chemical remnants of pesticides, pharmaceuticals and industrial solvents that disperse in the atmosphere and accumulate in the food chain. 

Snow sampling, density measurements and thickness measurement in Van Keulenfjorden, Svalbard. Credit Heïdi Sevestre
The women of the Climate Sentinels team studied the snow and ice in Van Keulenfjorden, on Svalbard’s Spitsbergen Island, to research the impacts of black carbon on the glaciers and snowpack there. Credit Heïdi Sevestre

The panel’s report to the council explains that sea ice loss, glacier retreat and shrinking snow cover release pollutants that have been frozen for decades or longer back into the environment. 

Even though levels of some contaminants in the Arctic are decreasing, “some, including mercury and persistent organic pollutants continue to pose a threat to some wildlife and people, especially Arctic indigenous people through their diet,” Arctic scientists wrote in their summary for policymakers. Microplastics are also a growing concern and have been found in snow, sea ice, seawater, in ocean sediments and on beaches in the Arctic, prompting development of a monitoring plan.

Much of the pollution in the Arctic drifts there from Europe, Asia and North America, but the region’s rapid warming increases the potential for local emissions of black carbon and other pollutants from wildfires. Those fires will flare up more often as lightning strikes increase, said Geological Survey of Denmark climate researcher Jason Box, describing some of the findings of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, one of the council’s working groups. 

“As the Arctic warms there is less snow, and with warmer summer temperatures, plants evaporate more moisture, so the surface is drier,” Box said. The warmer surface drives air upward, building thunderstorms with lighting strikes that ignite fires in the drying tundra and boreal forests. “Wildfire is increasing along with warming,” he said. In recent years, up to 5 percent of global carbon emissions can be traced to fires in the far north, he added.

The Arctic Council was established in 1996 under the Ottawa Declaration as a collaborative framework for governance of the High North by nations adjoining the Arctic Ocean and Arctic Indigenous peoples. Countries outside the Arctic but with interests in the region, such as China, hold observers status. High-level meetings are held every two years, with ongoing expert groups trying to keep up with the rapid changes in the region. This week, Russia assumes the chair of the council.

Related: How the Trump Administration’s Climate Denial Left Its Mark on The Arctic Council

‘Footprints of Climate Change’

If there’s a bullseye of Arctic warming, it would be the islands of Svalbard, between Greenland and Norway. In recent years, the archipelago has been warming about six to seven times as fast as the global average, said glaciologist Heïdi Sevestre, who collected black carbon samples during a 450-kilometer ski traverse of Svalbard’s Spitsbergen Island that she completed just before the Arctic Council meeting. 

Sevestre, director of outreach for the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, teamed up with five other female scientists— Dorothée Vallot, Anne Elina Flink, Alia Khan, Nina Adjanin and Silje Smith-Johnsen—on the Climate Sentinels project to study the effects of black carbon on the icy island. 

Along with snow sampling and other climate measurements, the scientists decided on a human-powered expedition to draw attention to the need for reducing the carbon footprint of climate research, which has been somewhat of a “taboo subject,” she said.

Snow sampling, density measurements and thickness measurement in Van Keulenfjorden, Svalbard. Credit Heïdi Sevestre
The Climate Sentinels all-female team of researchers conducts snow sampling, density and thickness measurement in Van Keulenfjorden, Svalbard. Credit Heïdi Sevestre

In the winter, it’s almost impossible to see fine black carbon particles suspended in the snowpack, ”But when the snow melts, all the particles aggregate on the surface of glaciers, and the glaciers in Svalbard are now so dark every summer, it is insane,” she said. The darkening also comes from other aerosols and mineral dust, as well as microbes and algae, which in combination are speeding the meltdown of Svalbard’s ice, she added.

The frozen samples gathered by the team are headed for a lab where a chemical analysis will show whether the black carbon came from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants, the exhaust of cargo ships or wildfire smoke. Since you can’t control what you can’t measure, the sampling is important for efforts to stem black carbon pollution, she said.

“The goal with the snow samples is to be able to identify what kind of fossil fuel was burned and where it’s coming from. We’ll be able to track the history of this pollution,” she said. “Short-lived climate forcers are important, because they are very efficient at catalyzing the melting of snow and ice. About 20-30 percent of Arctic melting has been attributed to black carbon, so if we could reduce it, it could make a big difference very quickly.”

It was almost heartbreaking to see the effects of climate change during the expedition, Sevestre said, starting with unusually extreme weather and heavy snowfall. Svalbard is actually an Arctic desert, but just before the trek started, an unusual blizzard piled snow on the slopes around Longyearbyen, its largest town, triggering avalanche warnings and evacuations.

“It was distressing,” she said. “As scientists are aware, the weather is getting wilder. But we didn’t think it would be that bad. April is usually cold and stable, but the first two weeks, we had storms like I’ve never seen on Svalbard.”

The maps they navigated with were often out of date because the glaciers have changed so much in just the last 10 years. “They always ended up always being so much steeper than on the maps,” she said. “There was not a day we didn’t see the footprint of climate change, and when you ski 10 to 12 hours a day, you have a lot of time to think about that.” 

Sevestre said a recent study in the Himalayas reinforces the idea that cutting black carbon pollution could slow the melt of Arctic ice. The research showed that glacial melting in the Asian mountains slowed as black carbon emissions declined during lockdowns triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“If we are able to decrease the concentrations of black carbon in the atmosphere, we can very quickly see positive results,” she said. “Hopefully, with these samples we collected, we’ll be able to tell where it’s coming from. If you can identify the problem, the sources of the pollution, you can identify a solution.”

But, she added, they may find those sources are closer to home than they have been in the past.

“Now that we’re seeing more and more wildfires north of the Arctic circle, more human activity in the Arctic, we might find that some of those sources are more local than we thought,” she said.

Indigenous Leaders Spotlight Food Security, Health and Equity

At this week’s Arctic Council meetings, Indigenous Arctic leaders were also focused on issues close to home—the concerns of the Arctic’s 4 million residents living in widely dispersed communities across the vast region.

“Thankfully the council has returned to its original objective of trying to balance sustainable development with protection of the environment,” said James Stott, of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which represents about 180,000 people. “Thankfully global climate change is back on the agenda… It comes down to finding that balance between development and conservation. It also comes down to a respect for other cultures.”

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That means fully including Indigenous communities in planning and managing protected areas in the ocean and on land, he said. Not all measures taken to protect the Arctic have been good for Indigenous communities, he said.

“Inuit have concerns with the proliferation of marine protected areas,” he said, adding that Indigenous communities must have guaranteed access to protected areas close to their homelands to ensure that people can practice their traditional way of life and access the resources that sustain them.

“We have concerns about attempts to limit our ability to hunt for food for our communities,” he said. “We will not accept our culture being outlawed.”

Tackling global warming and other environmental challenges in the Arctic will require more collaboration, tolerance and inclusion, said Edward Alexander, Yukon-based co-chair of the Gwich’in Council International, relaying a tribal origin story about a time when people, plants and animals all spoke the same language. He said that’s what enabled Indigenous people to negotiate the ecosystem of the north in a way that sustains peace and inspires the world.

“Let us celebrate those stories, and the example they set for creating a peaceful and vibrant world,” he said. “We must speak the common language of the north, providing voice to the concerns of our peoples, particularly the most vulnerable, and for all the creatures that inhabit the land, water and sky. Their concerns should be our concerns, too.”

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