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Issue # 1423      12 August 2009

Arctic Ocean could be pollution sump in 60 years

The Arctic Ocean could become a stagnant, polluted sea within 60 years if nothing is done to cut global warming, a scientific study warns.

The Transpolar Drift, a powerful Arctic current that disperses pollutants like pesticides, petroleum residue and radioactive nuclear material, would be stopped dead unless there are big cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions, the study by a group of Norwegian scientists predicts.

Other important pollution-dispersing currents would be slowed down. These include the Gulf Stream, Beaufort Gyre and Greenland Current.

These ocean currents circulate the Arctic waters and ensure that pollution gets washed away.

The study, by scientists at the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Centre in Bergen, Norway, was described in the August 6 issue of New Scientist.

The scientists studied the spread in the Arctic Ocean of radioactive substances from nuclear testing, nuclear weapons factories and nuclear power-plant accidents, using measurements taken between 1948 and 1999.

Right now, they found, the radioactive nuke material, along with other pollutants, is dispersed into the Atlantic Ocean by the Transpolar Drift.

They studied what would happen if nothing is done to curb greenhouse gas emissions, allowing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to double by 2070.

The scientists found that the currents would slow considerably, and in the case of the Transpolar Drift, stop. One reason, they say, is changed wind patterns caused by global warming and rapid melting of Arctic sea ice.

In this situation, pollution would take much longer to disperse, and much of it could build up along coastlines bordering the Arctic Ocean, particularly outside Europe. That would affect the US, as well as Canada and Russia.

The New Scientist article is available at www.newscientist.com

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