MANY discoveries about the former Soviet Union have followed its collapse and the lifting of the Iron Curtain. Few are more troubling than the discovery that the once-pristine Arctic has been seriously polluted by the intensive industrialization of the Russian Arctic and Eastern Europe. As a result, the Arctic environment is now at risk.
* Severely contaminated Russian rivers pour polyvinyl chlorides (PCBs), heavy metals, radioactive contaminants, and raw sewage into the Arctic Ocean. Heavy metals and PCBs are found in many Arctic plants and animals. For example, polar bears in some areas have disturbingly high levels of PCBs.
* Acid rain has damaged much of Russia's coastline, and air pollution threatens the health of its residents. A thick layer of polluted haze from Asia and Europe occurs over large parts of the Arctic each spring and winter, with particulate levels that rival those in the smog over Los Angeles.
* Logging threatens to open vast tracts of virgin Siberian forests to clear-cutting. These are the last remaining large forests in the world and may be as important as tropical rain forests in helping to regulate atmospheric carbon dioxide. Such logging could have significant impacts on the Arctic climate, with even larger ramifications for the earth's overall temperature.
* Atmospheric models predict that global warming will be more severe in the Arctic than elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. Future warming could disrupt a key link between the Arctic and world ocean currents and weather.
Also of concern is the radiation threat in the Arctic. Last year, CIA Director Robert Gates testified: "The former Soviet Union's attitude toward safety in handling radioactive waste materials was lackadaisical from the very beginning of its nuclear program."
For 40 years, Russia has apparently dumped nuclear wastes into Arctic seas, buried them on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, and discharged them directly into inland lakes and rivers that flow into the Arctic, contaminating the watershed for hundreds of miles downstream.
Nuclear weapons testing has been the major single source of radioactive contamination of the Arctic.
The former Soviet Union conducted nearly all of its high-yield tests at Novaya Zemlya, an island in the Arctic Ocean, releasing a total of 300 megatons of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere, some of which drifted to Alaska and northern Canada.
The United States must take a leading role in assessing the dangers facing the Arctic environment, then in cleaning it up and preventing pollution in the future. The Clinton administration has an excellent opportunity to build upon the groundwork already laid for a strategic Arctic protection agreement.
AT a conference last August in Fairbanks, Alaska, the US agreed that its Arctic policy, last reviewed in 1983, should be reevaluated with a view toward making protection of the environment and promotion of native peoples' culture, rather than preparation for military conflict, the top priorities.
At the same conference, and in subsequent testimony before Congress, the State Department committed itself to elevating the importance of Arctic protection in US foreign policy, including creation of a new federal advisory body to receive advice from native people and the environmental community. It is up to the Clinton administration to deliver on this commitment.
The governments and scientists of the eight Arctic nations - Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the US - have been working more closely on Arctic problems since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 1991, the countries adopted the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, which includes an Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) to promote international efforts to protect the Arctic environment and its native peoples. The AMAP effort can be helpful if it is effectively implemented, but the incoming administration must give it a much higher priority and more funding.
The Russians in particular must be assisted with technology and support for their environmental scientists.