Before you get excited about a music blog, this post is about adventure and persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
Sometimes people are impressed that I’ve often worked above 4800m in Tanzania, Chile, Peru, Nepal and Kenya, usually hauling heavy loads and doing slightly uncomfortable physical scientific work, or have camped for a month in Arctic Canada, outside the range of reliable or timely rescue if things were to go awry. However, in reality these trips have been (at least 99% of the time) a rare treat and privilege to be in such wonderful places, far from the discouraging problems and demands of the modern world and instead immersed in nature with some of my favourite people.
Now I’ve gone and signed up for something that sounds really challenging: In spring 2018 I will be part of a National Geographic Explorers team doing an unsupported ski traverse of Southern Greenland. Gulp. Here is a photo of what interior Greenland is like by my friend Uwe Hoffmann:
You can read all about our route, following the footsteps of Nansen, and preparations on the project website, and by following us on facebook, twitter and instagram. This is an adventure but with a scientific purpose: We are going to sample snow and see if it contains pesticides from lower latitudes transported up to the Arctic, and also try to determine, through atmospheric analysis where any such pollution is most likely to have come from.
This is an important issue as synthetic pesticides are resistant to decomposition in the natural environment. Instead of being broken down by biological or chemical means, they instead accumulate through the food chain, becoming more and more concentrated, especially in the fatty tissues of higher predators. These compounds have been shown to damage organ and enzyme function in the body, and inhibit reproduction.
Rachel Carsons powerful book about the impact of widespread pesticide and herbicide use in the 40s and 50s, Silent Spring, remains as relevant todays as it was upon its publication in the 1960s. While many of the chemical species she wrote about have been restricted or banned under the Stockholm convention of the 1990s, they are still found in the environment. An example that almost all of us have come across and maybe even used against mosquitos is DDT. Alternative compounds are now used in place of these banned substances. These are intended to be less harmful, but as the purpose of all these chemicals is to eradicate certain unwanted pests and plants, they are clearly associated with some level of toxicity.
Although not widely produced in the Arctic, the fact that these pollutants can survive atmospheric transport into Arctic regions is widely reported through the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program of the Arctic Council. They show up particularly in the marine mammals but little is known about the presence of pesticide pollutants held in the snow and firn of the icesheet. This could be important as it may be that the now-melting snow and firn will release some of the more savage contaminants used in previous decades into the hydrological cycle.
The strategy of our expedition is to:
- traverse in April, when snowfall is still quite frequent
- use skis rather than motorized vehicles that might contaminate the snow
- collect 20-30 kg of surface snow
- measure the amount of contaminants in the snow back in the laboratory in Poland
- use global gridded atmospheric data to back calculate the airflow trajectory for each snowfall event so we can work out where the precipitation (and any pollutants it contains) is most likely to have originated from
Wish us luck, and please follow our social media channels – it helps publicise our valued sponsors that are making this scientific adventure possible.