A look at current trends, concerns and future action

AMAP Working Group lays a scientific foundation while ACAP WG implements projects to stimulate actions to reduce emissions. This is how they work together to inspire change.

Mercury has long been identified as a toxic contaminant that can have serious health implications globally, causing increasing concern within the Arctic. Mercury is released as a result of human activities such as the combustion of fossil fuels, mining and metal production, cement manufacturing and waste incineration in addition to natural sources like volcanos. Most of these mercury-emitting activities occur outside the Arctic – so why is the region impacted by mercury pollution?Most mercury pollution is brought to the Arctic via long-range transport from lower latitudes by air and ocean pathways. This underscores the importance of pollution sources in southern regions joining efforts to reduce emissions. Once emitted, mercury is cycled and recycled in the environment, taking different chemical forms along the way.

Monitoring mercury in the Arctic is important, not least because of its direct impact on the people of the Arctic. Anders Turesson, Chair of AMAP

Among its applied pilot action projects, ACAP strives to connect to relevant and current policy development, both internationally and nationally. Of great importance is the Minamata Convention on Mercury, as are national efforts such as the many broad and ambitious environmental-related administrative reforms in the Russian Federation. One example is the introduction of a new permit granting system for industrial pollution, based on the principle of BAT, highly compatible with the corresponding systems used in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union. In the recently launched ACAP projects “Inventory of the use of POPs and Mercury and their Emission Sources in Murmansk Region” and “Promotion of pollution reduction to the Russian Arctic by introduction of BAT” international conventions and national policy implementation will be applied in practical conditions together with relevant and active stakeholders from both business and administration. Branches to be involved in the project include combustion plants, mining and metallurgy, pulp and paper, and cement industries.

Another recently launched ACAP Project is the “Mercury Risk Evaluation, Risk Management and Risk Reduction Measures in the Arctic” (ARCRISK). This project aims at developing an action plan with targeted risk reduction measures for mercury releases from key sources to land and water in the Arctic. Arctic rivers are important transport routes of mercury to the region, yet few risk management practices between Arctic States are consistent. A central part of the ARCRISK project is to identify possible risk management options to address mercury exposure in the Arctic focused on four river systems: the Mackenzie River in Canada, the Pasvik River in Norway and the Niva and Northern Dvina Rivers in Russia. ARCRISK will include an analysis of the effects of climate change that can remobilize mercury from thawing permafrost. The project’s key policy dimension is to encourage and provide guidance for local, national and state level action plans to minimize the detected risks and lower the current and potential exposure of mercury in and along the four pilot river systems. This is another case where ACAP tries to intertwine the science-based observations and expertise on Best Environmental Practice (BEP) with hands-on management in state, regional and local administrations, concrete industrial enterprises and other relevant stakeholders.

Using the co-developed risk management tool, feasible risk management and reduction measures will be developed in collaboration with relevant stakeholders such as local and national authorities, industrial enterprises and Indigenous peoples. Ultimately, ACAP’s goal is to inspire action at the national level. By developing concrete methods and plans for action, ACAP will build awareness and encourage Arctic States to follow up with measures at the national level as well.

“The ARCRISK project has been important to stimulate the momentum for implementing practical work and measures to reduce emissions of mercury,” says Åke Mikaelsson, Chair of ACAP’s Exert Group on POPs and Mercury. “Finally, after the ratification of the Minamata Convention, it has become possible to work practically in the field. Through such pilot projects, we share knowledge and build capacity to reduce emissions, and at the same time, build awareness among peoples in the Arctic.”

Particularly concerning is mercury’s ability to accumulate over time in living organisms. This creates a buildup in each successive level of the food chain, exposing wildlife and human populations – especially some Arctic Indigenous peoples and local communities that rely on marine animals as part of a traditional diet.

iStock / flyingrussian

High concentrations of mercury built up in the body can lead to troubling health effects. In humans, mercury can cause neurological damage, and hinder the development of children. In wildlife, health risks are overall low. However, geographic areas that have elevated levels of methylmercury – mercury’s most toxic form – can be a concern for some populations of fish, birds, polar bears, pilot whales, narwhals, beluga and hooded seals.

To understand sources of mercury and how it gets to the Arctic, the impact of contamination and how all this may change over time, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) has produced several assessments of mercury in the Arctic over the past 30 years.

Monitoring mercury in the Arctic is important, not least because of its direct impact on the people of the Arctic,” says Anders Turesson, Chair of AMAP. “Mercury in the Arctic is a complex issue. For the most part, sources of anthropogenic mercury contamination are not something we can directly influence in our own region – it comes from far distant sources. That is why it is of great importance that AMAP supports the development of international policy measures to reduce mercury emissions on a global scale.”

AMAP has made considerable contributions to international initiatives to combat mercury pollution. AMAP has collaborated with the UN Environment Programme on its recent 2013 and 2018 Global Mercury Assessments. AMAP’s 2004 mercury assessment results, along with efforts by Arctic Indigenous peoples and Arctic States, were crucial in the negotiations leading up to the global Minamata Convention on Mercury. The Minamata Convention marked a breakthrough in the international efforts to address mercury pollution. AMAP’s work continues to contribute to implementation of the Minamata Convention and further development of other international arrangements.

The Minamata Convention came into force in 2017. However, AMAP’s latest mercury assessment, released in May 2021, shows that mercury from human activity continues to travel to the Arctic. It reveals a complicated picture of emission levels and sources. Globally, emissions of mercury from human activities have risen in recent years. Despite this, atmospheric levels of mercury appear to be decreasing in the Arctic. This may be linked to lower emissions in regions closest to the Arctic, whereas emissions from more distant regions such as Asia have increased.

Climate change may also have an influence on mercury levels in the environment. For example, sea ice loss caused by climate change will allow for greater exchange of mercury between the atmosphere and Arctic Ocean, which could lower concentration in surface ocean waters. Conversely, increased river runoff is expected to add more mercury to the ocean. Permafrost is also a major global reservoir of mercury, and its thawing due to rising temperatures and extreme events like wildfires could release vast amounts of mercury. Climate-driven changes to the range of wildlife populations are also changing mercury transfer through food webs. However, untangling and isolating these climate impacts is difficult because of their complex interactions within ecosystems. This complicates efforts to understand and forecast the impacts on Arctic ecosystems.

AMAP’s new assessment continues to show that levels of methylmercury are elevated in some human populations in the Arctic. Diets are changing away from traditional foods, reducing exposure to mercury among Indigenous peoples and local communities in the Arctic. However, this has other health implications as store-bought foods are associated with a poorer diet overall. The dietary changes also have negative implications for food security and for the cultural identities among these communities. Despite country foods becoming a less prominent part of diets, Inuit in the Arctic remain exposed to some of the highest levels of methylmercury worldwide.

AMAP’s recent mercury assessment shows that continuing controls on global mercury emissions under the Minamata Convention can lower mercury pollution in the Arctic in the coming decades. They are the key to reducing the amount of mercury cycling in the environment. However, delays in introducing controls on emissions could have a major impact on mercury concentrations. Therefore, it is crucial that nations take action. While AMAP’s assessments lay a strong foundation on the status of mercury pollution in the Arctic, the Arctic Contaminants Action Program Working Group (ACAP) uses that work as a launch pad to spur action to mitigate mercury pollution. ACAP demonstrates actions that can successfully reduce pollution through its projects, inspiring nations to follow suit. ACAP also provides a platform for experts to stimulate cooperation across countries and to align with other international organizations. One example of this is a webinar on mercury and its combined impacts with other toxic substances on ecosystems and health that was held in September 2020 with 67 participants. “ACAP’s ongoing projects contribute to support efforts in the follow-up on the Minamata Convention,” said ACAP Chair Inger Johanne Wiese. “Modernization of industries and application of Best Available Technologies (BAT) is the best way to cut releases of mercury from industries and incineration processes.”