In the last 20 years, scientists have detected an increasing variety of toxic contaminants in the North, including pesticides from agriculture, chemicals and heavy metals from industry, and radioactivity.

These developments raise concerns for the overall health of the Arctic ecosystem. Our research team conducts scientific studies, mainly in freshwater and marine systems, on all aspects of marine pollution and ecotoxicology. We seek to quantify source contributions, document contaminant distributions, elucidate mechanisms leading to bioaccumulation in food webs and assess the consequences for Arctic animals and human health. Our research results contribute to national and international assessment efforts, including national and regional maritime management plans, the Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program and International Polar Year Programs.

Environmental Forensics

Contaminants in the Arctic originate from a wide variety of sources located both within and outside of the region. Yet source identification is essential to accurately assign accountability and to mitigate further impacts. Applying environmental forensic methods, our research team investigates the pathways and mechanisms connecting pollutant sources to observed impacts in the environment, biota and ecosystems. Applying these methods, our ecotoxicology team discovered how seabirds serve as a unique biological transport pathway for contaminants in the Arctic. Through feeding in marine areas, seabirds accumulate high concentrations of contaminants. These contaminants are subsequently transferred and released in freshwater lakes through excretion of guano, leading to high pollution levels in affected lakes and especially in top predator fish.

Connecting Climate to Contaminant Dynamics

Alterations to Arctic climate in the coming decades may lead to changing contaminant pathways. A central element of our ecotoxicology programme is to document and assess connections between natural climate variations and contaminant dynamics in Arctic food webs of today as a basis for predicting future changes. We conduct field studies of contaminants in marine food webs during different seasons in areas with distinct water mass and ice-cover conditions. These seasonal studies provide baseline climate-contaminant relationships to establish the natural ranges of contaminant variability detected in Arctic food webs. Data and relationships generated through field studies are used to develop and run food web simulation models to predict whether contaminant loadings in upper trophic level Arctic organisms will increase or decrease in the future. This research is a critical precursor toward development of sound management strategies for the future Arctic.

Assessing Consequences for Arctic Animals and Human Health

Akvaplan-niva conducts research aimed at identifying potential harmful effects of Arctic pollution for animals and human health. We perform field and laboratory studies combined with food web and ecotoxicology modeling to link contaminant concentration and composition in animals to biological effects from mortality to sub-lethal effects such as behavioral and developmental irregularities. Akvaplan-niva’s Barents Ecotox Laboratory allows for flexibility in the experimental design of these studies. The facility is fully approved by The Norwegian Animal Research Authority. Integrating Akvaplan-niva’s expertise on contaminated environments with specialists in human health and epidemiology, we conduct joint investigations of the leading causes of human health impacts from industrial sources such as from mining and factory operations in the Arctic.

Akvaplan-niva in Action

Dissecting an Arctic Char collected from Lake Ellesjøen, Bjørnoya (74 degrees N). These fish are part of a study to determine the sources and pathways of persistent organic pollutants into the Arctic. <span>Image by Guttorm Christensen</span>
Seafloor living animals collecting from the inland waters surrounding Svalbard  (80 degrees N). These animals are being sorted by species and were later analyzed in the laboratory to determine their contamination levels. <span>Image by Guttorm Christensen</span>
Sampling of Atlantic cod near Tromsø using a bottom trawl. The fish were used to establish baseline values of persistent organic pollutants and petroleum compounds as well as biomarkers. <span>Image by Jasmine Narghang</span>
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For More Information

Anita Evenset
Tromsø, Norway

Related Reading

Volatile Siloxanes in the European Arctic: Assessment of Sources and Spatial Distribution.

Warner, N.A., Evenset, A., Christensen, G., Gabrielsen, G.W., Borgå K. & Leknes H. (2010)

Environmental Science & Technology 44: 7705-7710.

Radioactivity in the Arctic Ocean and Arctic Shelf Seas.


In: Radionuclides in the Environment. (Ed. D. Atwood.) Wiley. 560 pages. ISBN: 978-0-470-71434-8