The environmental history of Arctic contaminants

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photo: Alan Wilson
photo: Alan Wilson

The second in a series of posts on the environmental history of northern Canada.

The Arctic is a place of paradox. Human activities – hunting, industrial development, global climate change – have affected its wildlife, habitats, and landscapes. Yet the region remains, for many, Canada’s last, best wilderness: relatively untouched, and, for Aboriginal communities, a generous provider of country food. This paradoxical identity – endangered, yet pristine – has been evident throughout the twentieth century. We hope our collection will help make sense of this and other dimensions of the environmental history of the Canadian Arctic.

This paradox has been especially evident in the environmental history of Arctic contaminants. This is the topic of my own contribution to our collection. In the 1950s nuclear testing led to radioactive fallout in the Arctic (and everywhere else on the planet). By the 1960s other contaminants had also been detected, including pesticides and mercury. Scientists tracked their sources, their movement within the region, and possible impacts on wildlife and humans. It became apparent that while there were some local sources, such as abandoned DEW Line sites, mines and hydroelectric reservoirs, the atmosphere is a major pathway by which contaminants travel into the north. Once there, they insinuate themselves into Arctic food chains, with wide-ranging consequences. Lichen accumulated fallout, caribou ate the lichen, and humans hunted and consumed caribou (and the fallout). DDT caused thinning of peregrine falcons’ eggshells. Today, polar bears eat seals, and accumulate persistent organic pollutants.

Contaminants therefore represent a substantial, if subtle, transformation of the Arctic environment. They have also influenced peoples’ knowledge and attitudes: provoking scientific study, international negotiations (including the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Contaminants), and efforts by Aboriginal communities to ensure the safety of their food supply. This last instance has raised difficult challenges regarding balancing the potential risks of contaminants against the nutritional, social, and economic benefits of country foods.

This history also raises questions about how we define the Arctic as a place. While the presence of contaminants reminds us that this region is intimately tied to the rest of the world, and so is subject to environmental changes experienced in other, more populated places, understanding the local implications of contaminants also requires us to consider the unique Arctic environment and the region’s distinctive political, social, and cultural identities. Similarly, while knowledge of Arctic contaminants has been guided by theories developed elsewhere, scientists must remember that the Arctic imposes unique requirements on their theory and practice. And while the politics of Arctic contaminants – everything from community risk assessments to circumpolar negotiations – parallel environmental politics elsewhere, they also exhibit features unique to the Arctic: the significance of country food, and the injustice that those most remote from the sources of contaminants are among the most affected. Is the Arctic a unique place, or simply part of the global environment? It turns out to be both.

This interaction between place and context presents a challenge to environmental historians everywhere. But perhaps the Arctic, where this interaction is so evident, is especially suited to exploring this challenge.

For more information about the federal Northern Contaminants Program, see:

For the perspective of the Inuit Circumpolar Council,

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Stephen Bocking

Professor, Trent School of the Environment at Trent University
Professor of environmental history and policy in the Trent School of the Environment, Trent University. Teaches courses on environmental history, science and politics, and environmental issues in the Global South. His website is:

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