Scientists have recently discovered an alarming number of plastic particles in the waters of the Arctic Ocean. As there are no permanent settlements near where the plastic was discovered, this means that the plastic is being brought up to the Arctic Ocean through currents from settlements farther south. Basically, humans are now polluting waters they don’t even have physical access to.
The study that revealed plastic in the Arctic Ocean was published recently in Science Advances by a group of researchers from Spain’s University of Cadiz. The study showed that ocean currents are carrying plastic bits to the Greenland and Barents seas. The majority of the plastic is coming from the North Atlantic. Once it reaches the Arctic, it settles in surface water, sea ice and even on the ocean floor.
Andres Cozar Cabanas, the lead author on the study, explains the possible effects of the surprising results. He says, “We don’t fully understand the consequences the plastic is having or will have in our oceans. What we do know is that this consequence will be felt at greater scale in an ecosystem like this because it is unlike any other on Earth.”
Researchers began their work by sampling floating plastic debris from 42 sites in the Arctic Ocean. They conducted their research on board Tara, a research vessel that journeyed around the North Pole in 2013. Their calculations involved determining the concentration of plastic particles by dividing the dry weight of the plastic collected by the area surveyed.
Most of the plastic collected was found in fragments ranging from 0.5mm to 12.6mm. Plastic was also found in the form of fishing lines, film and pellets. Large pieces of plastic were not found. Researchers surmised that the reason large pieces of plastic were not found is because the plastic breaks down significantly on its journey to the Arctic. By the time plastic reaches the Arctic, most of it has already broken off along the way.
Not finding large pieces of plastic also gave proof to the theory that this plastic is coming from far away and not being deposited in the Arctic. The Arctic coastlines are very sparsely populated by humans. The amount of plastic found in the Arctic far outweighs the number of people in the area. And since the plastic is found in small broken down pieces, scientists believe it originated much farther south.
The Role of Climate Change and International Cooperation
While research shows the current plastic in the Arctic waters isn’t caused from human activity in the Arctic, scientists fear this will be the case one day. Climate change is shrinking Arctic sea ice cover, making the water more susceptible to interference by plastic particles. This also makes the Arctic easier to navigate, which invites more human activity. Add to that the increasing need to stake national claim to Arctic land and it’s easy to see an increase in human settlement along Arctic waters. Scientists fear that with more human activity in the Arctic will come more plastic pollution.
Unfortunately, like climate change, the only way to combat plastic pollution in shared isolated waters is with international cooperation. Dr. Cozar Cabanas says, “[The issue of plastic pollution] will require international agreement. This plastic is coming from us in the North Atlantic. And the more we know about what happens in the Arctic, the better chance we have of solving the problem.” In order to get that information, researchers will need to work together, regardless of nationality, to share important data and work to fight plastic pollution.
So how exactly did plastic from the North Atlantic work its way up to the Arctic Ocean? Ocean currents. Every year, 8 million tons of plastic gets deposited into our ocean. There are as many as 110 million tons of plastic trash in the ocean currently. While more research is needed to determine the multitude of negative effects, we know that plastic has worked its way into the food chain.
The plastic pollution in the oceans can converge and accumulate in large batches, but is often left broken down and strewn throughout the waters. The study by Dr. Cozar Cabanas and his colleagues predicts that a large accumulation of plastic garbage could happen in the Arctic Ocean’s Barents Sea, near Russia and Norway.
Thermohaline circulation, a global ocean current that is dictated by temperature and saline differences around the world, brings warm water up to the Arctic. Unfortunately, trapped in that warm water are plastic particles from the Arctic’s southern neighbors. Once they reach the Arctic, large land masses and polar ice caps trap the plastic there and the plastic pollution accumulates.