Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) patterns were interpreted in two radioisotopically constrained sediment cores from the Arctic ocean in order to seek clues about their large-scale environmental fates. Low but clearly measurable fluxes of individual PCB congeners were observed in deeper layer sediments, corresponding to the past 170 years, in a single dated core from the Baffin Bay shelf. Fluxes of the dominant individual congeners in the surface sediments were 20-100 mug m(-2) d(-1). Combining these data with the sediment data from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, it appears that the PCB distribution in Arctic surface sediments is governed by the organic carbon (OC) content of the sediments. The historical development of the PCB congener fingerprint suggests that the modern sediments are enriched in medium-chlorinated congeners, implying that there are at least two significant, but distinctly different, sink processes acting on the PCB pool. The relative abundance of light-to-heavy congeners, in mid-shelf marine sediments of similar ages, between 40 degreesN and 76 degreesN latitude suggests a northward dilution of PCBs which is stronger attenuated for heavier congeners, consistent with a temperature-driven global fractionation process. The significant presence of PCB in historical archives pre-dating the organochlorine society, as observed in this and several previous studies, awaits a fuller explanation. (C) 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.