WITHIN 60 years the Arctic Ocean could be a stagnant, polluted soup. Without drastic cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions, the Transpolar Drift, one of the Arctic's most powerful currents and a key disperser of pollutants, is likely to disappear because of global warming.
The Transpolar Drift is a cold surface current that travels right across the Arctic Ocean from central Siberia to Greenland, and eventually out into the Atlantic. It was first discovered in 1893 by the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who tried unsuccessfully to use the current to sail to the North Pole. Together with the Beaufort Gyre, the Transpolar Drift keeps Arctic waters well mixed and ensures that pollution never lingers there for long.
To better understand the dispersal of pollution in the Arctic Ocean, Ola Johannessen, director of the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center in Bergen, Norway, and his colleagues studied the spread of radioactive substances such as strontium-90 and caesium-137 from nuclear testing, bomb factories and nuclear power-plant accidents. Measurements taken between 1948 and 1999 were plugged into a high-resolution ocean circulation model and combined with a climate model to predict Arctic Ocean circulation until 2080.