Estimating input of Hg and PAH levels from historical local sources and long range transport into the coastal marine system of Kongsfjorden, Svalbard

Since humans discovered Svalbard in the 16th century, they have been exploring its natural resources. Human activities have resulted in changes in the ecosystem and environment, such as the virtual disappearance of the Greenland right whale in the waters around Svalbard and the introduction of toxic substances into the environment. Due to the retreat of ice and hence greater accessibility, in combination with an increasing demand of fossil fuels and raw materials, human activities will expand in the Arctic environment, both at sea and on land.

While human activities will increasingly influence the Arctic marine ecosystems, the nature and impact of these changes, and their environmental consequences is largely unknown. On Svalbard the main local sources of pollution are the (historic) coal mining industry, the local use of coal in two power plants and, to a lesser extent, waste from settlements and shipping. Several (historic) mines on Svalbard may form a potential local hotspot for contaminants such as mercury and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Mercury, however, may also reach the Arctic via the atmosphere through long range transport.

Contaminants present in mining piles and tailing can be transported from the original site to the marine ecosystem by fresh water run off (mainly melt streams). Organisms take up contaminants via water and sediment and these may bioconcentrate in their tissues. As the contaminants move through the food web, they may become more concentrated in higher trophic levels. Mercury is found to accumulate to high concentration in top predators of the Arctic system in levels that may affect the functioning of the organism.

The project

Pilot studies have found elevated levels of mercury in terrestrial samples taken in the immediate vicinity of the historic mining area in Ny-Ă…lesund, Kongsfjorden, Svalbard. In this project we will compare mercury (Hg) and PAH levels in the Kongsfjorden area to distinguish between input from historical local sources and long range transport. We will focus on three main objectives:

  1. Asses the run off of mercury and PAHs to the marine system
    We will determine the amount of terrestrial run off of Hg and PAHs to the marine system at different proximities to an historic mining site;
  2. Assess mercury and PAH concentrations in marine invertebrates at several distances from mining run off sites
    By comparing mercury and PAH levels in the tissues of specimens of various marine invertebrates in the direct vicinity of the mine as well as from further away, we will be able to assess the extent to which the contaminants from a local source enter and spread in the marine system.
  3. Gain an initial insight into the atmospheric versus local input of Hg and PAHs in the Arctic marine system
    Modelling the results of mercury and PAHs in biological and sediment samples from both contaminant impacted and non-impacted sites will lead us to a better understanding of where the contaminants originate from on a global scale.

Contaminant levels will be assessed in melt water streams (water and sediments) near the coal mine, as well as in marine sediments and in benthic organisms living near the outflow of these melt water streams. Two nearby sites will also be sampled further away from the mining site. A comparison between contaminant levels and gradients near and away from the coal mine will give a first insight into the local input of Hg into the marine system. Comparisons of PAH concentrations will also be used to support these findings.

This is a joint project of Wageningen Marine Research and the Arctic Centre of the University of Groningen granted by the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund. Frits Steenhuisen of the Arctic Centre developed a model that simulates global mercury emissions for UNEP and the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program of the Arctic Council. The results of this project will provide insight in the attribution of local sources to global pollution of Hg in an Arctic coastal marine system.