The timeline of Arctic lead deposits


Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | July 9th, 2019

Embedded in layers of ice, lead deposits in the Arctic can help us track our thousands of years of pollution.

Lead has been closely linked to human expansion for centuries. Its extraction is often linked to silver; highly concentrated deposits of lead in ice cores, when dated, often correspond to periods of industrial development, while lower amounts track to periods of plague, famine, and war.

Lead levels also prove to be an effective way to track overall industrial progress–lead levels increased by roughly 300 percent from the Middle Ages to the 1970s. The element was used in the past for a multitude of things, including piping, smelting, and cosmetics.

Geographical location influences the lead core readings. An ice core in Russia is likely to contain more lead contamination–and, therefore, more information–from Eastern Europe than an ice core in Greenland.

Joseph McConnell, a researcher from the Desert Research institute in Reno, U.S., lead a team of people from multiple scientific and historical backgrounds to scan and decode the lead layers with atmospheric modelling. The project is uniquely multidisciplinary, combining the knowledge and efforts of climate scientists and economic historians, all hoping to learn more about the various ways that we interact with–and influence –our environment.

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