SCIENCE CHINA Earth Sciences, Volume 59 , Issue 10 : 1899-1911(2016) https://doi.org/10.1007/s11430-016-5073-0

Climate change and global cycling of persistent organic pollutants: A critical review

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  • ReceivedMar 3, 2016
  • AcceptedJun 30, 2016
  • PublishedSep 1, 2016


Abstract Climate warming, one of the main features of global change, has exerted indelible impacts on the environment, among which the impact on the transport and fate of pollutants has aroused widespread concern. Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are a class of pollutants that are transported worldwide. Determining the impact of climate warming on the global cycling of POPs is important for understanding POP cycling processes and formulating relevant environmental policies. In this review, the main research findings in this field over the past ten years are summarized and the effects of climate warming on emissions, transport, storage, degradation and toxicity of POPs are reviewed. This review also summarizes the primary POP fate models and their application. Additionally, research gaps and future research directions are identified and suggested. Under the influence of climate change, global cycling of POPs mainly shows the following responses. (1) Global warming directly promotes the secondary emission of POPs; for example, temperature rise will cause POPs to be re-released from soils and oceans, and melting glaciers and permafrost can re-release POPs into freshwater ecosystems. (2) Global extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, result in the redistribution of POPs through intense soil erosion. (3) The changes in atmospheric circulation and ocean currents have significantly influenced the global transport of POPs. (4) Climate warming has altered marine biological productivity, which has changed the POP storage capacity of the ocean. (5) Aquatic and terrestrial food-chain structures have undergone significant changes, which could lead to amplification of POP toxicity in ecosystems. (6) Overall, warming accelerates the POP volatilization process and increases the amount of POPs in the environment, although global warming facilitates their degradation at the same time. (7) Various models have predicted the future environmental behaviors of POPs. These models are used to assist governments in comprehensively considering the impact of global warming on the environmental fate of POPs and therefore controlling POPs effectively. Future studies should focus on the synergistic effects of global changes on the cycling of POPs. Additionally, the interactions among global carbon cycling, water cycling and POP cycling will be a new research direction for better understanding the adaptation of ecosystems to climate change.


Acknowledgements We thank Dr. Gong Ping, Dr. Wang Chuanfei, Dr. Xue Yonggang, Dr. Ren Jiao and Dr. Balram Pokhrel for their advice during the preparation of this review. This paper was financially supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant Nos. 41222010, 41571463) and the Youth Innovation Promotion Association, Chinese Academy of Sciences (Grant No. 2011067).


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  • Figure 1

    Transport processes for persistent organic pollutants.

  • Figure 2

    Direct and indirect impacts of climate change on the behavior and fate of persistent organic pollutants.

  • Table 1   The main multimedia fate and transport models cited in this paper





    Level III-IV fugacity model. The world is divided latitudinally and longitudinally into 288 regions. Seven environmental compartments are considered (two atmospheric layers, soil, vegetation, coastal water, freshwater and sediments).

    This model can be flexibly applied on different scales (local) or global simulation.


    Level IV fugacity model. Latitudinal resolution up to 10 regions. It takes into account 9 compartments (freshwater and sediment, four vertical atmospheric layers, upper ocean layer, cultivated and uncultivated soils).

    This model can be used for assessing the POPs fate and under the influence of ice melting.


    Level IV fugacity model. GIS-based models. Six environmental compartments are assumed in this model (atmosphere, freshwater - rivers and lakes, coastal water, sediments, soil).

    It could be used for calculating the fate of persistent pollutants in a climate change perspective especially at high spatial resolution for the dry land areas, where this model allows to easily distinguish different environments.

  • Table 2   Environmental behavior of persistent organic pollutant in response to global change


    Environmental consequence

    Response of POPs

    Effect on POPs level


    Glaciers melting

    Fresh water was injected into the environment; chemicals stored in the glacier were released.

    POPs were rereleased into the environment e.g. atmosphere and lakes


    UNEP, 2010; Grannas et al., 2013

    Permafrost degradation

    Exacerbated surface erosion

    Increased the second emission of POPs


    Evans et al., 2005; Grannas et al., 2013

    Sea level rise

    Increased erosion

    Increased the second emission of POPs


    Kwok et al., 2009

    Salinity of sea water changes

    Two situation: salinity is decreased due to injection of glacier melting water; seawater salinity increase because of local drought

    Change of the marine food chain structure, variation of metabolism of marine biota


    Olsen et al., 2011


    Severe erosion

    Increased the second emission of POPs


    Holoubek et al., 2007

    Forest fire

    Surface soil temperature rise up the non-intentional POPs

    Increased both the primary and secondary discharge of POPs


    Kim et al., 2003; Kallenborn et al., 2011

    Changes of atmospheric circulation

    Changed POPs transport intensity and direction of

    Changed the environment distribution of POPs


    Ma et al., 2004, 2011; Ma and Li, 2006

    Ocean current change

    Changed POPs transport intensity and direction of

    Changed the environment distribution of POPs


    Lohmann et al., 2006

    Population increase

    Increased use of pesticides, malaria outbreak, and worsened environmental pollution

    Increased both the primary and secondary discharge of POPs


    Noyes et al., 2009

    Soil desertification

    The reconstruction of the vegetation zone around the world

    Changed the fate of POPs


    Noyes et al., 2009

    Variation of biodiversity

    The components of regional biosphere changed

    Changes on the biological enrichment of POPs at regional scale


    Brander, 2007

    +, positive; −, negative

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