Blast from the Past: Melting Glaciers as a Relevant Source for Persistent Organic Pollutants

In this study, the hypothesis that melting Alpine glaciers may represent a secondary source of persistent organic chemicals is investigated. To this end, a dated sediment core from a glacier-fed lake (Lake Oberaar, Switzerland) was analyzed for a wide range of persistent organic pollutants, organochlorine pesticides, and synthetic musk fragrances. Input fluxes of all organochlorines increased in the 1950s, peaked in the 1960s−1970s, and decreased again to low levels in the 1980s−1990s. This observation reflects the emission history of these compounds and technical improvements and regulations leading to reduced emissions some decades ago. The input of synthetic musks remained at a high level in the 1950s−1990s, which is consistent with their relatively constant production throughout the second half of the 20th century. Since the late 1990s, input of all compound classes into the high-Alpine Lake Oberaar has increased sharply. Currently, input fluxes of organochlorines are similar to or even higher than in the 1960s−1970s. This second peak supports the hypothesis that there is a relevant release of persistent organic chemicals from melting Alpine glaciers. Considering ongoing global warming and accelerated massive glacier melting predicted for the future, our study indicates the potential for dire environmental impacts due to pollutants delivered into pristine mountainous areas.