Polar Amplifications

In the Arctic, climate change and plastic pollution produce tangled damage for the people, plants, and animals that live there

Six hundred miles from the North Pole, I climbed a mountain flanked by two glaciers in a tank top. The sun shone on my shoulders and arms. In 2014, the polar vortex killed people in the American Midwest and overwhelmed parts of the South with snow. In 2015, subzero temperatures pummeled the United States in the so-called Arctic blast. 2016 saw epic floods in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi; a flooded Seine that put a halt to foot and road traffic, displacing houseless people and sending shipping debris across Paris; and exceptionally warm weather and severe storms, including an avalanche that killed one and injured nine more in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. June 2016 found me attending an artist residency in Svalbard; my goal was to consider the connections between these events—the ongoing effects of climate change—and marine pollution, which has long been the focus of my work. These connections, I’ve learned, are especially visible in the Arctic.

Svalbard, an archipelago located between 76 and 81 degrees north, is roughly equidistant from the northern shore of Norway and the North Pole and home to the world’s northernmost human settlement with over 1,000 inhabitants. Its capital, Longyearbyen, was founded for coal mining in 1906; today the small city is sustained by tourism marketing “untouched Arctic wilderness”: glaciers and as many polar bears as people. But this “wilderness” is threatened by melting sea ice. Thanks to polar amplification, the phenomenon that magnifies global temperature shifts at the poles, climate change is hitting Svalbard particularly hard. While land and sea temperatures are increasing steadily around the world, average temperatures in the Arctic have shot up by 2.3 degrees Celsius since 1970. It has been another record-low year for sea ice, and polar-bear populations—a keystone species in Arctic habitats—are rapidly shrinking as a result. Melting ice means that polar bears, who live primarily on seals, have fewer and fewer places to hunt.

The residency took place on a boat. For two weeks, we sailed around the Svalbard archipelago and north to the edge of the Arctic pack ice before circling back to land. At sea, we kept an eye out for polar bears. The single one we saw was walking along a coastline a few hundred kilometers south of the southernmost edge of what was once considered the permanent Arctic ice cap. Even without binoculars, you could see the bear was starving, and his (our guides deduced the sex from his body structure) pace looked determined, to say the least. Without ice from which to hunt, he was out of luck for finding a substantial meal for the next several months; when he took a detour up to the base of a cliff a handful of meters inland from the rocky shore, it was likely to look for birds’ eggs to eat. But it takes 2,000 eggs to equal the calories of one seal. After being yelled at by a blue fox—a high shriek loud enough to carry from the mountainside to our ship and then some—the bear returned to the coastline.

Melting ice is not the only threat this polar bear faced. Even where ice is plentiful, chemical contaminants and plastic marine debris threaten bears’ abilities to survive. Persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—used in coolants, carbonless copy paper, plasticizers in paint and cement, pesticide extenders, flame retardants, and more until they were banned worldwide by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001—leach into ocean water from plastic waste and enter the food web at the level of plankton. PCBs and other contaminants also bond to plastics and are ingested that way. As with climate change, these problems are amplified at the poles. Chemicals get concentrated in the Arctic through the grasshopper effect, a process in which contaminants leap through the atmosphere by evaporating in warmer areas and condensing in cooler ones. Plastic debris travels, too, arriving in the Arctic on marine currents. The West Spitsbergen Current carries warm, salty water across the Atlantic from the Gulf Stream to Svalbard, spitting whatever it’s brought with it out into the ocean north of the archipelago.
Each time we departed the boat for a brief foray on land, we observed these dynamics viscerally. On every beach we visited, we encountered debris from all over the world. Some of the articles were huge, like buoys and large ropes from the fishing industry. One of our guides found an orange plastic basket completely intact. A colleague collected a perfect tiny yellow fishing float and a matching yellow buoy the size of a bowling ball. Another picked up a toy doll’s arm. And then there were all the microplastics, pieces too small to pick up, many smaller than a fingernail. One day, on a beach in Sørvika, we collected 41 kilos of trash and left even more of it behind.

Because polar bears are high up in the food web and rely on fat-intensive diets, pollutants accumulate in especially high volumes in their blood. PCBs also raise their progesterone levels, acting as contraception. And though the effects are especially pronounced in polar bears, they show up throughout the food web. In Arctic birds such as the glaucous gull and fulmar, PCB syndromes include disorientation; weakened birds have been found crawling around with sores on the knuckles of their wings. PCBs have also been shown to reduce immune responses in Arctic char, a cold-water fish, and inhibit reproduction in Arctic foxes; they may explain population declines in orcas, the most highly polluted Arctic mammal.

This is all disastrous for people who live in the Arctic, especially the 10 percent who are indigenous. When seals and walruses die off from melting ice, a major source of physical and cultural sustenance is gone. While ice is still there, people are ingesting the chemicals that build up in the animals’ fatty tissues. Marine debris piled up on the beach acts as a vector for PCBs and other toxic compounds and, when small enough, enters drinking water, where humans ingest the fragments and whatever contaminants have bonded to them.

Put simply, you can’t separate the effects of melting ice, chemicals, and plastics on bears, gulls and people. After the residency concluded in Longyearbyen, I stayed for a few weeks and met with the ecotoxicologist Geir Wing Gabrielsen, coleader of the Norwegian Polar Institute’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, which studies regional pollution and climate-change issues. Though Gabrielsen’s work focuses on marine contaminants’ effects on marine life, he began our meeting by asking how far north we had to sail to reach the pack ice. From there our conversation ranged from debris in Advent Fjord, on which Longyearbyen sits, to toxicity burdens in birds like guillemots to the way climate change forces Atlantic plankton north, displacing Arctic plankton, to similar shifts in local fish populations.

We weren’t rambling for nothing. This mode of inquiry, so mobile and dense with connections, is key to understanding how the Arctic is changing—and to analyzing the ways environmental damage compounds in oceans around the world. Climate change exacerbates the effects of marine pollution, not just through weather events but through slower changes like those in food web structures and reproduction patterns I have been describing. Simultaneously, marine debris deepens the effects of climate change through the grasshopper effect, polar amplification, ocean temperature changes, and limiting the ocean’s capacity to function as a carbon sink.
Rebecca Solnit writes that “climate change is itself violence.” I want to extend that formulation: Marine pollution, in the forms of plastics and the chemical contaminants that both leach from and bond to them, is a parallel form of violence. Within ecotoxicology circles, this idea is becoming a kind of common sense. Marte Haave, an ecotoxicologist I met at the University of Bergen in Norway, suggested when I interviewed her that plastics themselves should be labeled and regulated as persistent organic pollutants. Max Liboiron, assistant professor of geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland, has named pollution a form of colonialism.

It is important to be precise in naming the cause of the twin violences of climate change and pollution: capitalism, an extractive economic system built on oil, plastics, and, above all, expediency. Here again these things can’t be separated. Oil companies see plastics as part of their bottom line; plastics, in conjunction with resin products, generated $105 billion in revenue in the United States in 2014 alone. Profit margins also depend on a logistics industry that can ship these commodities around the world, and quickly, all the while burning more oil. At the heart of capitalism as we know it is an insistence on ease and speed, no matter how wasteful it might be.

As with so many issues of environmental justice, those who suffer the most are not the ones who created the conditions of their suffering. It’s not Gwich’in people who have chosen to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. It’s not walruses who have opened up the Northwest Passage to shipping and tourism. It’s not glaucous gulls who have decided to aggressively market single-use plastic packaging that so often doesn’t make it to—or stay confined in—the landfill. And yet it is these humans and nonhumans who are urgently facing the impossibility of living in ecosystems flooded with petroleum products at all stages of their life cycles, from plastic zip ties to dioxin.

As capitalism renders this planet uninhabitable for so many people, animals, and plants, it’s too late to continue ignoring other possible ways of organizing production and distribution. We need alternatives. This requires thinking beyond borders and species. This begs us to address gendered and racialized injustice. This demands, most centrally, that we reimagine how we make sense of and live on this planet. In my conversation with Marte Haave, she reiterated that Arctic plastic pollution is the result of a system that pursues expediency above all else. If capitalist expediency is what ultimately threatens the oceans with temperature changes, pollution, and habitat loss, what might happen when we refuse it?