Pollutants spread through Arctic by migrating seabirds

Northern gannets nesting in Quebec, Canada.

Arctic seabirds are acting as proverbial ‘canaries in the coal mines’ for pollution hotspots in the High North.


Arctic seabirds are literally fouling their own nests according to research that shows the migrating birds have become unwitting cross-polluters of their own habitats.

Tracking the migration patterns of Little Auks have allowed scientists from La Rochelle University in France to not only see how polluted seabirds habitats are, but to also hone in on contaminant hotspots in the High North.

The study, Spatial Ecotoxicology: Migratory Arctic Seabirds Are Exposed to Mercury Contamination While Overwintering in the Northwest Atlantic, shows as the seabirds fly between their summer and winter homes they are spreading pollutants and risking passing contaminates up the food chain.

It’s not just Little Auks that are carriers through.

“[Many] seabirds that congregate produce these little hotspots of contaminants,” says Jules Blais, Professor of Biology and Environmental Toxicology at the University of Ottawa, to BarentsObserver. “You can find hundreds of thousands of birds on these little islands – these little oases – and because they congregate there they bring a lot of biocontaminates to that area.”

Once upon a time seabirds were fostering nutrient-rich habitats other animals would flock to. They would act as cross-pollinators bringing sea nutrients and species from other ecosystems ashore – essentially fertilizing a barren Arctic tundra. Now, toxins – hitching a ride via seabirds the same way the nutrients did – are found everywhere in the nesting spots from soil samples to pond sediment to feathers.

An Arctic Council report from 2011 cautions that mercury levels in large marine animals like beluga whales, ringed seals, polar bears and birds of prey increased 10-fold in the last 150 years.  Over 90 per cent of this mercury is thought to have originated from human sources.

As the seabirds migrate south out of the sparsely populated Arctic they are exposed to environments and food that contain more human pollutants, says Geir Wing Gabrielsen, senior research scientist at the Norwegian Polar Institute, to BarentsObserver, “Industrial areas are in mid-Europe, North America, Asia and definitely Russia.” The chemicals released into the air, soil and water are absorbed through the seabirds’ diet. When they return north they bring the contaminants home to roost and a hotspot is created over time.

The La Rochelle study findings showed Little Auks mercury levels were 3.5 times higher after a winter abroad than when they were summering in the Arctic.

Mixed in with the toxic cocktail found in seabird habitats are chemicals like DDT and PCBs, though, Blais and Gabrielsen say, those have been declining in recent years, along with emerging contaminants like perfluorooctanoic acids (PFOAs) and brominated flame retardants. The latter two chemicals are used in Teflon, inside microwave popcorn bags and in carpet cleaners among other common household items.

By tagging seabirds and retracing their flights scientists have been able to pinpoint some pollution hotspots in the High North oceans and nesting spots.

“We thought we were working in a kind of pristine area…it was supposed to be clean and nice,” says Gabrielsen. “In the Barents Sea due to the fact that you have both air and sea currents going through the area and melting of the ice you get that hotspot [effect].”

Gabrielsen studies seabirds in Norway’s High North and on the island of Svalbard while Blais’ fieldwork has kept him mostly in the Canadian north. But their findings reflect a commonality: the barren landscapes of the north are not as untouched as they seem.

“We have these oases in the Arctic that congregate life and that’s exactly where the contaminants are building up,” says Blais. “We tend to think of the Arctic as being this really pristine environment, but in fact some of the biggest contamination we see is [there].”

It’s a problem not just restricted to bird cliffs though. Samples taken from Arctic communities have also shown elevated levels of the chemicals in indigenous peoples who hunt wild game, fish and seabird eggs.

“The potential for these contaminants to be transferred to the food web is great,” says Blais. “[The indigenous] end up with really high contaminants in their bodies because they eat these traditional foods.”

There are measures in place, Like the Stockholm Convention (2004), to help try to regulate and restrict harmful chemicals from making there way into the environment. The problem is the problem is they aren’t being identified and added to the list quickly enough says Gabrielsen.

Blais is hopeful that companies are taking steps to clean up their products if problem ingredients are identified, “take Scotchgard,” he says.

In 1989 Scotchgard came under investigation for its use of perfluorooctanoic sulfonate (PFOS) as a key ingredient in its formula after studies showed alarmingly high levels of the chemical in polar bears. Since 2003 Scotchgard has only manufactured PFOS-free products.

“It’s a good success story about how research and informing the public and involvement by these corporations to change the formula can result in this positive change,” says Blais.

Change is slow coming though and even chemicals banned 20 years ago are traceable today and are still slowly poisoning the environment.

“For me, to see birds dying on the nest with newborn chicks and these toxins may be the reason…that was something really sad,” says Gabrielsen. “It was happening in the 80s…and it’s still happening now.”