Letter | Published:

Revolatilization of persistent organic pollutants in the Arctic induced by climate change

Nature Climate Change volume 1, pages 255260 (2011) | Download Citation


Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are organic compounds produced by human activities that are resistant to environmental degradation. They include industrial chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls, and pesticides, such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. Owing to their persistence in the environment, POPs are transported long distances in the atmosphere, accumulating in regions such as the Arctic, where low temperatures induce their deposition1,2. Here the compounds accumulate in wildlife and humans, putting their health at risk1,3,4. The concentrations of many POPs have decreased in Arctic air over the past few decades owing to restrictions on their production and use. As the climate warms, however, POPs deposited in sinks such as water and ice are expected to revolatilize into the atmosphere5, and there is evidence that this process may have already begun for volatile compounds6. Here we show that many POPs, including those with lower volatilities, are being remobilized into the air from repositories in the Arctic region as a result of sea-ice retreat and rising temperatures. We analysed records of the concentrations of POPs in Arctic air since the early 1990s and compared the results with model simulations of the effect of climate change on their atmospheric abundances. Our results indicate that a wide range of POPs have been remobilized into the Arctic atmosphere over the past two decades as a result of climate change, confirming that Arctic warming could undermine global efforts to reduce environmental and human exposure to these toxic chemicals.

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This study is funded by the Government of Canada Program for International Polar Year (project of the Intercontinental Atmospheric Transport of Anthropogenic Pollutants to the Arctic). B. Yu provided the IPCC multimodel ensemble-averaged surface air temperature data from 1901 to 2100 and Y. Su compiled the data of physical–chemical properties for the selected POPs. The authors would also like to acknowledge financial support for air measurements conducted at the Zeppelin station from the Norwegian Pollution Control Authorities (Norway) and the Alert station from the Northern Contaminants Program (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada). H.H. would like to thank Canadian Forces Station Alert for supporting the data collection.

Author information


  1. Air Quality Research Division, Environment Canada, 4905 Dufferin Street, Toronto, Ontario M3H 5T4, Canada

    • Jianmin Ma
    •  & Hayley Hung
  2. Yantai Institute of Coast Zone Research, CAS, 17 Chunhui Road, Yantai, China

    • Chongguo Tian
  3. Norwegian Institute for Air Research, P.O. Box 100, NO-2027 Kjeller, Norway

    • Roland Kallenborn
  4. Department of Chemistry, Biotechnology and Food Science (IKBM), Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB), Christian Magnus Falsen vei, Postbox 5003, NO-1432 Ås, Norway

    • Roland Kallenborn


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J.M. designed the research; J.M., H.H. and R.K. contributed and analysed data; C.T. carried out modelling and J.M. and H.H. wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Jianmin Ma or Hayley Hung.

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