Environment: understanding atmospheric and ocean flows
Environment: understanding atmospheric and ocean flows

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Environment: understanding atmospheric and ocean flows

2.4 Pollutant pathways to the Arctic

Winds, ocean currents and flow from rivers can all carry pollutants from their source to the Arctic. On a stereographic plot, the routes of wind-borne contaminants from the warmer, populated areas of Earth to the cooler Arctic are clear (Figure 9). These winds can transport contaminants to the poles, where they are removed from the atmosphere most likely through snowfall and are then absorbed by animals, perhaps through direct contact.

The North Atlantic Current shown in Figure 9 flows directly past the waters off Western Europe, likely to be a major source of PBDEs. For top predators such as polar bears, there is also likely to be biomagnification from the high levels of PBDEs in their prey, the seals.

Described image
Figure 9 Transportation pathways for persistent organic pollutants (POPs) to the Arctic. Note the curving path of the wind currents caused by the rotation of the Earth. (adapted from Macdonald et al., 2005)

Overall, the toxicity of POPs to the polar wildlife is not completely clear, but the fact that they are manufactured only in populated regions and yet can be detected in Arctic wildlife is striking. POPs give a graphic demonstration that a region once thought of as remote is clearly physically connected to the rest of the planet.

The poet Nick Drake responded to his experience of the Arctic by writing a series of poems. His ‘one poem in many voices’ The Farewell Glacier sought to give a voice to people, places and other animals and things related to the region.

Listen to Nick reading two extracts from The Farewell Glacier, related to themes of the first two sections of this course. The first is about Wally Herbert (1934–2007), the British polar explorer, writer and artist. In 1968–9, Herbert led the British Trans-Arctic Expedition to walk 4000 miles from Alaska to Svalbard, making him the first man confirmed to have walked to the North Pole.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1
Skip transcript: Video 1 Nick Drake’s Wally Herbert video

Transcript: Video 1 Nick Drake’s Wally Herbert video

When I was 12, to win a bet, I walked across the thin ice of the frozen Severn and never looked back. Later, I resolved to walk from Alaska to Svalbard across the sea ice. My Inuit friends left a map pinned to the door, marked with the places they thought I would die.
It was 3,800 miles. We left in February. 4 men and 40 dogs. And in July, we made camp because the sea ice was not drifting in our favour. When the sun returned, we continued through the next summer to reach 90 degrees north.
Trying to stand on the North Pole was like trying to step on the shadow of a bird circling overhead. I telegraphed the Queen. Two weeks later, a man took the first step on the moon, and by the time we got home, we were forgotten.
You couldn't walk it now even if you wanted to. Why not? Because the sea ice is melting, and no one can walk on water.
End transcript: Video 1 Nick Drake’s Wally Herbert video
Video 1 Nick Drake’s Wally Herbert video
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Now listen to Nick read his poem on pollutants and how they make their way to the Arctic.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 2
Skip transcript: Video 2 Nick Drake’s Mercury video

Transcript: Video 2 Nick Drake’s Mercury video

We were born in your dream of the future. Released by fire, we ascended the winding stairs of the smokestacks until we reached the orange sunrise and the blue sky. No one waved goodbye. One saw us go.
We were uncountable and invisible. One way or another, we were carried north in the hands of the winds on the wheels of the rivers by the generosity of the ocean. And when we arrived at the cold top of the world, it felt like home sweet home. And we waited in the long darkness until at last the first light of the year transmuted us out of thin air and we came to rest in ice and snow and black water.
Now we accumulate and magnify in the cells of fish, in the eggs of birds, in the warm coats of seals and bears. And in the wombs of mothers, we concentrate so the faces of the future take on our features. And we sing our names into the ears of the unborn-- PCB, POP, DDT, magnesium, technetium, mercury.
End transcript: Video 2 Nick Drake’s Mercury video
Video 2 Nick Drake’s Mercury video
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