An international new study finds that plastic pollutants are found in Arctic waters, Arctic organisms and Arctic ice, cautioning that more regulations and control mechanisms are needed.
Plastic has even reached the Arctic Ocean – large amounts of plastic, carried by rivers, the air and shipping, says a new study released by the Alfred Wegener Institute.
High concentrations of microplastic, a news release notes, can be found in the water, on the seafloor, remote beaches, in rivers, and even in ice and snow. Plastic is not just bad for ecosystems, it could also negatively affect climate change.
The authors write that “Every year, 19–23 million metric tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste are transferred from land-based sources to water globally.” That amount is about two truckloads per minute. The plastic that collects in the oceans eventually breaks down, from macro- to micro- and nanoplastic and can enter the human bloodstream.
The plastic amount in oceans is likely to increase, as global plastic production is expected to double by 2045.
The authors note that while ingesting plastic doesn’t necessarily directly harm organisms, it “creates the potential for malnutrition, internal injury, obstruction of the intestinal tract causing starvation or rupture, and potentially death.”
These days, pretty much all marine organisms investigated, “from plankton to sperm whales,” a news release notes, come into contact with plastic debris and microplastic. And this happens all around the world, “from tropical beaches to the deepest oceanic trenches.”
According to the study, the High North is just as affected as the rest of the world. “The Arctic is still assumed to be a largely untouched wilderness,” says AWI expert Dr Melanie Bergmann.
“In our review, which we jointly conducted with colleagues from Norway, Canada and the Netherlands, we show that this perception no longer reflects reality. Our northernmost ecosystems are already particularly hard hit by climate change. This is now exacerbated by plastic pollution. And our own research has shown that the pollution continues to worsen.”
Even though the Arctic is sparsely populated, its habitats display the same level of plastic pollution as more densely populated regions around the world. The pollution comes from both local and faraway sources.
Buoyant, lightweight plastic can “float with ocean surface currents to higher latitudes with most plastic transport into the Arctic from the Atlantic and modest transport of microplastic through the Bering Strait,” the authors note.
They also add that “Biota can disperse plastic debris through ingestion, migration and egestion. Some of the floating macroplastic becomes intercepted by uninhabited Arctic beaches of Svalbard, the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, the Russian Far East, Alaska, Arctic Canada and west Greenland.”
Thus tiny microplastic particles are carried by currents and wind, as well as rivers. Even though the Arctic Ocean makes up only one percent of the total volume of the world’s oceans, it “receives more than 10 percent of the global water discharge from rivers,” which carry plastic into the ocean, for instance, from Siberia.
When seawater off the Siberian coast freezes in the autumn, microplastic gets suspended in ice. The ice then gets carried to Fram Strait – between Greenland and Svalbard – via currents – The Transpolar Drift – and when it melts in the summer, the plastic inside gets released as well.
“Local sources of plastic,” write the authors, “include the key sectors of maritime activity in the Arctic, such as hydrocarbon exploration, aquaculture and ship traffic, including cruise tourism and fisheries.” Moreover, there are also “domestic sources, as evidenced by reports of bottles, containers, plastic bags and fabrics” which may or may not come from ships.
“Unfortunately, there are very few studies on the effects of the plastic on marine organisms in the Arctic,” Bergmann explains. “But there is evidence that the consequences there are similar to those in better-studied regions: in the Arctic, too, many animals – polar bears, seals, reindeer and seabirds – become entangled in plastic and die.
“In the Arctic, too, unintentionally ingested microplastic likely leads to reduced growth and reproduction, to physiological stress and inflammations in the tissues of marine animals, and even runs in the blood of humans.”
There is not much data available on potential feedback effects between plastic debris and climate change. “Here, there is an urgent need for further research,” Bergmann says. “Initial studies indicate that trapped microplastic changes the characteristics of sea ice and snow.”
The authors note that “Although they are often thought of separately, climate change and plastic pollution are directly and indirectly linked, and both are amongst the biggest ecological challenges faced today globally and in the Arctic, not least they share the same fossil origin, oil and gas.”
According to the study, global heating is three times faster in the Arctic compared with the rest of the planet. Melting ice with trapped microplastic in it could increase the albedo effect (the ability to reflect sunlight) by 11 percent and change the permeability of sea ice and the absorption of solar radiation. Or it could go the other way, with darker particles promoting solar absorption, and thus, melting.
The authors also say that they are beginning to study the effects of microplastic and nanoplastic on important physical processes, such as soil functions, biogeochemistry, ice properties (melting, UV reflectance and attenuation), weather (condensation, precipitation) and particle flux through the water column (biological pump), “all of which have repercussions for the functioning of our Earth system, especially in a changing Arctic. However, it is already clear that effective mitigation is urgently needed to prevent further deterioration of Arctic ecosystems and communities.”
Bergman summarises their findings as such: “Our review shows that the levels of plastic pollution in the Arctic match those of other regions around the world. This concurs with model simulations that predict an additional accumulation zone in the Arctic.
“But the consequences might be even more serious. As climate change progresses, the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the world. Consequently, the plastic flood is hitting ecosystems that are already seriously strained.”
Bergman emphasises the significance of a global plastic treaty, passed at the UN Environment Assembly earlier this year, calling it “an important first step.” She adds that in the course of the negotiations over the next two years, “effective, legally binding measures” must be adopted – including goals to produce less plastic.
The AWI expert says that European countries, including Germany, must reduce their plastic output, just as “the rich Arctic states have to reduce pollution from local sources and improve the often virtually non-existent waste and wastewater management in their communities.”
She adds that more regulation and controls are called for, “with regard to plastic debris from international shipping, and fisheries.”