Scientists call for more protection of the polar regions from pollutants

Sampling in the Arctic

The sampling and monitoring of the polar region for contamination has so far been few and far between. © Hereon/ Zhiyong Xie

The polar regions were long thought to be the last untouched regions on the planet. But even they are now exposed to increasing levels of pollution. That is why leading scientists and research institutions have now published the "Berlin Declaration". In it they formulate ten recommendations for action for better protection of the polar regions. Action must be taken urgently, the embassy said.

Whether Arctic or Antarctic: The polar regions are unique habitats and important factors influencing global material cycles and the climate. For a long time, the icy landscapes of the polar regions were considered largely untouched and hardly influenced by humans. But in the last few decades this has changed. The icy refuges are not only severely affected by anthropogenic climate change, pollutants produced by humans are also carried to the polar regions by air and water currents.

"We must act urgently"

However, the extent of polar pollution and the consequences it has are only partially known. Little research has also been done on how the chemicals reach remote regions of the Arctic and Antarctic. It is therefore correspondingly difficult to stop the progressive pollution of these important and unique ecosystems. In order to change this, scientists from all over the world - including polar researchers, representatives of the EU Commission, the Arctic Council and the Antarctic Conference of the Parties as well as leading research institutions - have now drawn up the "Berlin Declaration".

In this declaration, the researchers led by Ralf Ebinghaus from the Hereon Institute for Environmental Chemistry of Coastal Areas formulate ten recommendations for action with which the polar environment should be better protected against contamination. "Polar regions must be given more attention in terms of monitoring, risk assessment and management of potentially harmful chemicals - this is required by the precautionary principle," emphasize the scientists. On the one hand, this requires more education and monitoring, and on the other hand, cooperation between different actors in containing the burden. Action must be taken urgently.

Precautionary principle, monitoring and central coordination

Specifically, the ten recommendations are:

1. Increased awareness of the problem in politics and the public

Climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution are interrelated and together pose a threat to ecosystems that is particularly evident in the polar regions. In order to raise awareness of the problems in the far-flung polar regions, the media and educational projects must bring the problems closer to the citizens. The precautionary principle and strategies for monitoring, mitigating and eliminating pollution must take into account indigenous and traditional knowledge.

2. Application of the precautionary principle

The precautionary principle is an approach designed to prevent worse polar pollution before it's too late. This requires early decisions to protect the Arctic and Antarctic environment. A contribution to this can be made, for example, by examining the extent of the toxicity, longevity and environmental mobility of chemicals better than before. The results can then be incorporated into approvals and other decisions.

3. Improving networking

In order to derive action from knowledge, effective networking and communication between relevant actors and interest groups is necessary. In this way, the research questions that are required by national and international bodies and decision-makers for their decisions, such as the European Commission, the European Chemicals Agency or the Stockholm Convention, can be addressed in a more targeted manner.

4. Better use of monitoring data

With around 350,000 registered chemicals, it is important to prioritize if the focus is on the hazard potential for polar ecosystems. For this purpose, the criteria of international regulation should be used, especially longevity and range. It is important that harmonized data on occurrences at both poles are regularly collected and published.

5. Updating the paradigms to protect the polar regions

The number of pollutants is increasing rapidly. This raises the question of whether the existing approaches to the assessment and management of chemicals are still up to date. The problem is that pollutants are increasingly being detected which, according to previous assessments, would not be expected at the poles. More than 800 substances are currently classified as “of potential concern for the Arctic”.

6. Enhancement and harmonization of surveillance

While monitoring in the Arctic is established through national and regional programs, this has not been the case for the Antarctic so far. Systematic sampling and data collection must therefore still be developed there. For the Arctic, more local sources of pollution should also be investigated, including emissions from oil and gas production, mining, industry and military facilities, but also from municipal infrastructure, tourism and settlements, the operation of research stations or large-scale fishing.

7. Development of innovative screening programs

In addition to the classic, targeted chemical analysis, new approaches are now available that can improve the monitoring of pollutants and make it easier to assess the risk potential. This includes broad chemical screening methods, new model approaches for assessing effects and machine learning to identify new problem substances.

8. Expansion of environmental sample banks

Environmental Specimen Banks are national institutions that develop and implement formal programs and standardized protocols for the collection, processing, and archiving of environmental specimens for future research. Their sample archives offer opportunities for retrospective observation and evaluation of temporal and geographical changes in chemical exposure over the last few decades. In the Arctic, the pollutant programs are already being systematically supported by environmental sample banks, which is also urgently needed for the Antarctic.

9. Ensuring open access to data

Data can already be accessed from individual established data platforms on specific topics or can be found in scientific reports or articles. However, there is no central, comprehensive and open access to data on pollutants at the poles. In general, compared to the Arctic, there are significant data gaps in the Antarctic that need to be filled.

10. Establishment of digital platforms

The digital storage of results from samples that have already been measured in long-term accessible repositories and virtual environmental sample banks offers new possibilities for the subsequent evaluation of data when new methods or findings on pollutants in polar regions emerge.

"It is our hope that the Berlin Declaration will provide the core for the development of a network that will be expanded into a true platform for polar collaboration," write Ebinghaus and his colleagues.

Source: Helmholtz Center Hereon; Specialist article: Chemosphere, doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2023.138530

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