Is there any place on this planet that humans have left untouched? Earlier this week, scientists announced that traces of plastic debris have been found in the Southern Ocean, in waters encircling Antarctica that had been thought still beyond the reach of humans.
Even more, scientists have learned that plastic debris in the Southern Ocean is found at the same rate as the global average of approximately 50,000 fragments per square kilometer. The highest levels of pollutants are found in the north Atlantic and the North Sea; finding so much plastic debris in the Southern Ocean was not at all anticipated. Indeed scientists with Tara Oceans had predicted that the rate would be ten times less than the average for the rest of the world, notes the Guardian.
The plastic debris is most likely from Africa, South America or Australia and was originally plastic bags and bottles. Over some fifty years, these objects have turned into microscopic fragments due to sea water and ultraviolet light and were only found via trawling nets.
According to the Guardian, the researchers were “also surprised to find that synthetic fibres, largely constituted by clothing from washing-machine residue, made up a significant portion of the plastic fragments.” Synthetic fibers including polar fleece, polyester and acrylics cast off “thousands of tiny microparticles of plastic every time they are washed and dried“; these tiny bits of plastic end up in coastal beaches and, yes, in our oceans.
Plastic Debris and the Marine Plankton Ecosystem
The discovery of the plastic debris in the Southern Ocean was made by the French scientific vessel, Tara, on a 70,000-mile voyage across the Atlantic, Pacific, Antarctic and Indian Oceans. The purpose of the ship’s two and a half year voyage was actually to investigate the effects of climate change on the ocean’s ecosystems and biodiversity by making the first global study of marine plankton. Studying marine plankton is like “taking the pulse of our planet” because they comprise “the only ecosystem that is almost continuous over the surface of the Earth.”
Moreover, studying plankton can tell us a lot about climate change, notes Tara Oceans:
Recently, scientists have discovered the great importance of plankton for the climate: populations of plankton are affected very rapidly by variations in climate. But in turn they can influence the climate by modifying the absorption of carbon. In a context of rapid physico-chemical changes, for example the acidification observed today in the world’s oceans, it is urgent to understand and predict the evolution of these particular ecosystems.
As plastics gradually release chemicals and toxins, these inevitably end up in the marine food chain.
Unfortunately, it is, as Chris Bowler, scientific co-ordinator of Tara Oceans, says, “too late to do much about what’s already out there at this stage, as this stuff is going to hang around for thousands of years.” The discovery of plastic debris in the Southern Ocean is a sad testament to the fact that the “reach of human beings is truly planetary in scale” and all the more so as the Southern Ocean is “relatively separated from the world’s other oceans and does not normally mix with them.”
So what can we do?
Bowler calls for the development and use of biodegradable technologies (such as a laser made from silk). But we also need to change the habits we’ve so quickly adopted since plastics were declared “the future” in the 1960s. The future that is already here is one in which our oceans are seeded with plastic debris. We can do better.
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Photo by Liam Quinn