Effects of ice-associated stressors and pollutants on the Arctic marine cryosphere

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: Lancaster Environment Centre


An array of persistent chemical pollutants are present in the Arctic in both biota and abiotic compartments, including snow and ice. These chemicals include older legacy contaminants such as PCBs and DDT, well as an array of newer 'emerging' contaminants with contrasting physical-chemical properties. Rapid changes to the physical and biological environment in the Arctic are changing the pathways and fate of pollutants, making biological exposure and impact difficult to predict; indeed changes to the Arctic may be altering the biological exposure to contaminants and even exacerbating it. The purpose of this proposal is to provide a mechanistic and quantitative understanding on the role of sea ice (particularly first year sea ice - the dominant ice type in a warmer Arctic) in the accumulation and subsequent release of chemical contaminants to the base of the marine foodweb. Preliminary evidence indicates that some newer contaminants are present in sea ice at concentrations akin to temperate coastal seas and we need to know the reasons for this, plus the likely exposure to biota once contaminants are released during ice break up and melt at the end of winter. Elucidating this process and understanding the fate and behaviour of chemicals in marine ice and snow can help shape chemical management strategies at the global level, particularly if changes to the Arctic cryosphere are also altering nutirent availability in ice and surrounding seawater. The contaminant and nutrient processes to be observed in the Arctic will be supported by artificial sea ice experiments.

We plan to investigate this topic using field and laboratory studies and use these to model effects on the lower marine foodweb, examining whether nutrient and contaminant availability are linked and their impact on sea ice habitat functioning.

Planned Impact

The recently published report from the UK's House of Lords Select Committee on the Arctic ("Responding to a Changing Arctic" 2015), states:
"Processes in the Arctic have the potential to amplify climate change, causing further warming and further change; the exact nature and pattern of this feedback is difficult to predict and measure. Knowledge of many aspects of the Arctic environment, and how it is responding to change, is limited."
Furthermore, the Select Committee concludes: "Knowledge of Arctic ecosystems, particularly marine ecosystems, is limited and in some areas severely lacking. This knowledge gap hampers our ability to understand the effects of climate change, and of human activity, on marine species in the region"

This proposal is based on the need to assess the global reach and distribution pathways of current-use/emerging chemical contaminants - many of which have significant commercial value but are present as background contaminants in the Arctic. This proposal will therefore provide sound science to help address issues raised in the Select Committee report (above).

Specific end-users who will benefit from this research will include:

(1) International conventions and risk assessment scientists concerning the global use/management of hazardous chemical substances. This research will provide some of the first assessments on the role of the changing Arctic cryosphere on contaminant fate in the marine environment. It will identify the extent of exposure and timing of exposure of these substances to biota, particularly organisms in the lower marine foodweb for which there is a clear knowledge gap. The work will address research needs identified by the Arctci Monitoring Assessment Programme (AMAP), informing the Nordic Council of Ministers and influening politicians in the UK and Germany.

(2) The oil industry will benefit from the fundamental research to be conducted on a wide variety of chemicals regarding their entrapment and behaviour in sea ice. This will result in model simulations of chemical fate which can be used to inform oil-dispersant management in ice-rich waters.

(3) General Public: the science behind EISPAC holds great appeal to the public. Melting sea ice is very much one of the most publicly visible signs of climate change. The concept of an Arctic Ocean without summer sea ice in the next 40 years is a powerful metaphor of global warming that is easy to grasp. Our aim will be to add equally powerful messages about how pollution stressors (certain 'everyday' chemicals and plastic materials) alongside climate change may impact on the productivity, biodiversity and chemistry of the Arctic Ocean. This material is of great interest to the live visual, video and audio media. We will utilize our estbalished connections with media groups to publicise this project and its findings.


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