Ocean Currents Are Carrying Our Plastic Garbage to the Arctic

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The Arctic Ocean is still thought to be relatively a pristine environment, partly because not too many people live close to its shores. But it turns out that humanity is gunking up the Arctic with plastic fragments that travel there via ocean currents, even when they’re dumped far away. Plastic seems to be reaching the Arctic from the US and the UK, and concerningly, there could be a lot more of it headed there right now, making the problem much worse.

It’s well-known by now that plastic is filling up our oceans, even their deepest and most remote regions. Plastic debris in oceans is responsible for the deaths of one million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals every year, according to UNESCO. When plastic gets dumped in the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, it doesn’t stay put—ocean currents transport it elsewhere, and this new research suggests that a lot of that garbage is travelling poleward.

A new paper, published in Science Advances, shows that the Arctic is a “dead-end” for plastics in the North Atlantic, and that there’s lots of this pollution in the seas east of Greenland and north of Scandinavia, even though there are relatively few people around. Even though floating plastic in the Arctic makes up less than 3 per cent of all the plastic floating in the water around the world, more of it is likely travelling to the region right now on these same ocean currents. In the study, authors used 17,000 buoys to confirm the path that plastic had taken.

Different microplastics found in the Arctic Ocean. Image: Andres Cozar

Co-author Carlos Duarte, a professor from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and an affiliate of the Arctic Research Centre of Aarhus University, told Motherboard in an email that a lot of the plastic entering the ocean could now be “en route” to the Arctic. He wrote that the junk his team detected likely came from the North Atlantic, but the plastic from major production areas, like China and India, will take decades to reach there.

Read More: Sailing Through Garbage Bag Ocean

Lead author Andrés Cózar, a biology professor at the Universidad de Cádiz in Spain, went on a circumpolar ocean exploration in 2013. He and his team used nets to collect the floating plastic they found in the water. They discovered that most of the ice-free waters in the Arctic Polar Circle only had a bit of plastic debris, but there was a lot in the Greenland and Barents Seas.

Most of the fragments found were “thin film,” like Saran Wrap, according to Duarte. “If the plastic was local, the dominant contributor would be fishing line,” wrote Duarte, “as the Barents Sea, located off the coasts of Norway and Russia, supports one of the most productive fisheries in the world.” Norwegian and Russian fisheries are focused on cod, haddock and capelin.

The Tara research vessel pulling a net to collect plankton and microplastics. Image: Anna Deniaud/Tara Expeditions Foundation

“The Arctic is the terminal station for the global ocean conveyor belt (current) transporting heat, and now we also add plastic, across the global ocean,” wrote Duarte. “One full loop of the global conveyor belt takes about 600 years to complete.”

“Plastic is ingested by many species…then it moves from the points of entry up the food web, to which [humans] are connected,” wrote Duarte. “The negative effects range from clogging digestive systems to toxicity associated to pollutants in the plastic.”

Duarte and the rest of the team are currently planning their next steps to verify just how much waste is sitting on the seafloor.

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