June 24 2024

Tracking the Journey of Frozen-Locked Pollutants into the Arctic Ocean

One of ICEBERG’s research activities in Svalbard is to study the reactivation of frozen-locked pollutants in Ny-Ålesund (78.9° N, Northern Spitsbergen). This means investigating organic chemicals and microplastics that are released into the environment as climate change is melting the snow, ice and permafrost. This summer, our scientists are taking a head start with the analysis and collecting additional samples.

A house in the middle of a snowy landscape in Ny-Ålesund, in Northern Spitsbergen.
ICEBERG is studying frozen-locked pollutants around Ny-Ålesund, in Northern Spitsbergen.

The study of frozen-locked pollutants in the project is led by the Institute of Polar Sciences of the National Research Council in Italy (ISP-CNR). In Svalbard, they have set up their operations in the world’s northernmost research station in Ny-Ålesund, which is also one of the world’s northernmost settlements.

The tiny village of Ny-Ålesund is located in Kongsfjorden (The King’s Fjord), on the west coast of Spitsbergen. Originally, it was a coal mining settlement, but from the end of 1960s it has mainly been used for scientific research.

“When these pollutants are released into the environment from the ice and snow they can have serious impacts on the health of humans and animals.”

In Ny-Ålesund, the nearby glaciers and the fjord provide ample opportunities for studying the thawing of the cryosphere and its effects. The research station has permanent marine observatories for monitoring the physical elements and sampling around the year. In addition, ISP-CNR has already been working in the area for multiple years gathering data for example from snow pits.

“Ny-Ålesund is an ideal site for our research. Here we can get a comprehensive story of how previously frozen-locked pollutants are transferred from land into the ocean as the snow and ice melts,” says Dr. Tommaso Tesi from ISP-CNR.

“When these pollutants are released into the environment from the ice and snow they can have serious impacts on the health of humans and animals.”

Two researchers in white overalls taking samples from a snow pit's wall.
Researchers from ISP-CNR are taking samples from a snow pit around Ny-Ålesund.

Unveiling how and when pollutants end up in the environment

So what type of pollutants are our researchers studying here?

The ISP-CNR team is studying different organic chemicals and micro- and nanoplastics. These pollutants are used in several products, such as tyres, plastic objects, clothes, paints and personal care products. In addition to plastics themselves, the researchers study additives and chemicals that are used in the production of plastics to enhance their properties and they can be released into the environment too.

“Some of these pollutants are already regulated but some are not. For example, microplastics are emerging pollutants that are not thoroughly regulated. We also don’t know all their effects on human health yet,” explains Beatrice Rosso from ISP-CNR.

“Ice and sediment have memories. By studying ice and sediment cores, we can learn when and how the pollutants have ended up there.”

The pollutants can travel long distances in the ocean and atmosphere: some are brought by the winds from Europe and America, some travel through ocean currents from lower latitudes and some come from local sources. Over time, the various pollutants accumulate in snow, ice and sediment.

“Ice and sediment have memories. For example, the deeper you go from the surface in the sediment, the further back in time you travel. By studying cores of ice and sediment in different places in the area, we can learn when and how the pollutants have ended up there,” Tesi explains.

In addition to studying the movements of pollution from land to the ocean and lower latitudes to the Arctic, the team is also studying how nano-plastics end up in the food chain by studying zooplankton. The team will collect zooplankton – small organisms that get trapped in sediment traps – and study them for ingested micro-nanoplastics.

“As fish eat zooplankton, these micro-nanoplastics can end up on our plate too,” explains Rosso.

Three ICEBERG researchers in a laboratory analysing samples.
ICEBERG’s researchers Alessandro, Fabiana and Beatrice are analysing the samples for microplastics, persistent and emerging organic pollutants in the clean room.

Analysing snow pit and sediment samples

Tesi and his research team have already collected snow, ice and sediment samples around Ny-Ålesund in previous years. This allows our researchers to already start the analysis this summer. The team has collected samples from their snow pit sites in nearby glaciers Kongsvegen and Holtedahlfonna since 2019 and have now begun analysing samples from 2021 to 2023.

“We have already analysed over 300 samples for bisphenols and will soon start with the benzothiazoles. Bisphenols are used in the production of plastics and resins and can damage fertility and disrupt the hormonal systems of both people and animals. Benzothiazoles, on the other hand, are plastic additives used in tyres,” Rosso says.

The team has also started analysing sediment samples collected from the Kongsfjorden last September. In June, the researchers had a full day in the clean room where they subsampled surface sediments for microplastics and all organic pollutants. Some of the samples will also be sent to ONIRIS, another ICEBERG partner, for their analysis.

The whole team will not spend their summer in the lab, as there is also fieldwork to be done. Starting in August, part of the ISP-CNR team will head back to Ny-Ålesund to collect more sediment samples and do maintenance work for their sediment traps in the permanent marine observatories.

Two ICEBERG researchers lifting a sample collecting device from the ocean in an arctic landscape.

ISP-CNR’s researchers Francesca (left) and Gianmarco (right) are collecting surface sediment samples in Kongsfjorden in August 2023.

Read more about our research activities

During the summer and autumn, we will share more news and articles about our research activities in our channels.

Read more about our activities in Svalbard during this summer from our recent blog post.

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Contact us

Project Scientific Coordinator

Prof. Thora Herrmann
University of Oulu

Project Manager

Dr Élise Lépy
University of Oulu


Marika Ahonen

Innovative Community Engagement for Building Effective Resilience and Arctic Ocean Pollution-control Governance in the Context of Climate Change

ICEBERG has received funding from the European Union's Horizon Europe Research and innovation funding programme under grant agreement No 101135130

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