Arctic Waters Littered with 300 Billion Pieces of Plastic, Study Reports

Trillions of pieces of plastic litter the world’s oceans – a disastrous effect of humanity living on this planet. Unfortunately, tiny particles of bags, toys, bottles, fishing nets, and other plastic matter has swam their way into the Arctic waters, polluting the areas that humans should have no business polluting.

This seaborne junk was the subject of a study published Wednesday in Science Advances. According to a panel of researchers from the University of Cádiz in Spain and other academic institutions, a massive ocean current carries small bits of plastic into the Arctic waters. They come mainly from the North Atlantic, traveling all the way to the Greenland and Barents seas. The dangerous plastic floats in the surface waters, gets stuck in the sea ice and even on the ocean floor.

Dumping Plastic into Oceans

Climate change has already started shrinking the Arctic sea ice cover. NASA proved it by providing many before-and-after pictures of the region. And as navigation became easier, human activity in this still-remote part of the world has become increasingly likely. Consequently, plastic pollution – a human-driven activity that has gained prevalence since 1980 – has started plaguing the Arctic waters. The matter will only worsen in decades to come, according to the researchers.

Andrés Cózar Cabañas, the lead author of the study, is a professor of biology at the University of Cádiz, Spain. He said the results surprised him and the team, worrying them about possible outcomes of the plastic pollution in the Arctic waters. While the consequences are still largely unknown, researchers expect the worst. Given that the Arctic is such a unique ecosystem, it will experience the effects at a greater scale than other places on the globe.

According to the collected data, some 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. After thorough research, the researchers estimate there may be as much as 110 million tons of plastic junk flowing in the ocean. Though further studies are required to fully understand the environmental effects of plastic pollution, it seems it has already made its way into the food chain.

Scientists have previously thought that plastic trash accumulates in large patches in the ocean. The effect is prevalent mainly in subtropical gyres – major ocean currents that converge far away from the shore. However, scientists now estimate only about 1 percent of plastic pollution occurs in these gyres. The remaining 99 percent simply drifts in the open ocean.

Photo collage of plastic fragments found in the Arctic Ocean.  / Source

Oceans: Giant Sinks for Plastic Pollution

According to another model of ocean currents, the study’s authors predicted the existence of other plastic garbage accumulations in the Arctic Ocean. The research demonstrates the phenomenon is most prevalent in the Barents Sea, off the northern coasts of Norway and Russia. While the surface water plastic in the Arctic waters currently accounts for just 3 percent of the total, the study suggests the amount will only grow. In the end, the seafloor in the region could become a massive sink for plastic.

This part of the ocean is particularly crucial in the thermohaline circulation. A deepwater global current, the thermohaline circulation is in tight connection with the alterations in salinity and temperature around the world. As that current transfers more warm surface water to the Arctic, it also brings plastic trash from highly populated coastlines. The result is a massive dump of tiny pieces of plastic in the Arctic waters. It’s here where they get entangled in landmasses such as the polar ice cap and Greenland.

The scientists boarded Tara, a research vessel that took them on a trip around the North Pole. The circumnavigation lasted from June to October 2013. This extended journey allowed the team on board to sample floating plastic waste from 42 different sites in the Arctic Ocean. They also used data gathered on a previous trip from two other sites.

Sampling Arctic Waters for Plastic Bits

Researchers picked up plastic debris from the sites and then separated the dry samples of plastic – minus the microfibers – by the area they surveyed. This process helped them determine the concentration of particles and the seriousness of the situation in various spots of the Arctic. Almost all of the plastic samples were in fragments, ranging from 0.5-12.6 millimeters.

The plastic that could not be measured by weight appeared in the form of film, fishing line, or pellets. This blend of plastic types is somewhat consistent with the plastic patches in the subtropical gyres. The only difference, said the researchers, is that those parts of the ocean contain a higher concentration of fishing line. In the Arctic waters, the team reported finding much fewer large pieces of plastic. Plastic film was also scarce, mostly because it breaks down quickly. This observation suggests the plastic they did find had already been in the ocean for some time before it reached the Arctic.

The researchers are confident about the source of the plastic pollution in the area. It surely doesn’t come directly from Arctic coastlines, because it would mean the people living in the least populated Arctic throw more plastic in the ocean than people in other parts of the world. And that, scientists say, is very unlikely. Water navigation is also infrequent in the Arctic, which only strengthens the conclusion: Other continents contribute more to the plastic pollution in the oceans.

Scientists aboard the research vessel Tara lower nets into the water to collect plankton and microplastics. / Source

Bottom Line

Dr. Cózar Cabañas stated the takeaway of the study in a simple sentence. The issue of plastic pollution in Arctic waters will not go away on its own. It will require international agreements regarding the dumping of plastic in oceans. The plastic trash comes in from the North Atlantic, which means several governments must come together and find a solution for this urgent problem.

Carlos Duarte, one of the study’s co-authors, said, “It’s only been about 60 years since we started using plastic industrially, and the usage and the production has been increasing ever since. So, most of the plastic that we have disposed in the ocean is still now in transit to the Arctic.”

The study aims to embody a red flag for environmental organizations and governments around the world. What will the immaculate landscape of the Arctic look like when all of our plastic trash surfaces there?

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William E. Eubanks
 

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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