Environmental risk of nickel in aquatic Arctic ecosystems


  • Elevated concentrations of Ni occur near mining/smelting operations in the Arctic
  • There is a lack of Ni exposure scenarios in coastal, estuarine, and marine waters.
  • Freshwater Ni bioavailability follows spatial trends in dissolved organic carbon.
  • A critical gap to Ni risk assessment is a lack of toxicity data with Arctic species.
  • Climate change will affect Ni exposure and may influence its effects in the Arctic.


The Arctic faces many environmental challenges, including the continued exploitation of its mineral resources such as nickel (Ni). The responsible development of Ni mining in the Arctic requires establishing a risk assessment framework that accounts for the specificities of this unique region. We set out to conduct preliminary assessments of Ni exposure and effects in aquatic Arctic ecosystems. Our analysis of Ni source and transport processes in the Arctic suggests that fresh, estuarine, coastal, and marine waters are potential Ni-receiving environments, with both pelagic and benthic communities being at risk of exposure. Environmental concentrations of Ni show that sites with elevated Ni concentrations are located near Ni mining operations in freshwater environments, but there is a lack of data for coastal and estuarine environments near such operations. Nickel bioavailability in Arctic freshwaters seems to be mainly driven by dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentrations with bioavailability being the highest in the High Arctic, where DOC levels are the lowest. However, this assessment is based on bioavailability models developed from non-Arctic species. At present, the lack of chronic Ni toxicity data on Arctic species constitutes the greatest hurdle toward the development of Ni quality standards in this region. Although there are some indications that polar organisms may not be more sensitive to contaminants than non-Arctic species, biological adaptations necessary for life in polar environments may have led to differences in species sensitivities, and this must be addressed in risk assessment frameworks. Finally, Ni polar risk assessment is further complicated by climate change, which affects the Arctic at a faster rate than the rest of the world. Herein we discuss the source, fate, and toxicity of Ni in Arctic aquatic environments, and discuss how climate change effects (e.g., permafrost thawing, increased precipitation, and warming) will influence risk assessments of Ni in the Arctic.

Gauthier P. T., Blewett T. A., Garman E. R., Schlekat C. E., Middleton E. T., Suominen E., & Crémazy A., 2021. Environmental risk of nickel in aquatic Arctic ecosystems. Science of the Total Environment 797: 148921. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.148921. Article.

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