Plastic Is Everywhere, Even in Antarctica

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.


Related Care2 Coverage

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Sweden is So Green It Has to Import Garbage


Photo by Liam Quinn


Jenkins Malcom
Jenkins Malcom4 years ago

superb knowlegde

Elizabeth Sowers
Liz Sowers6 years ago

Recycling is one of the easiest steps we can take, yet I know many people still find even that too inconvenient somehow...Of course, bigger steps must be taken, but why is this easy one not done by so many?

susan thornton
susan Thornton6 years ago

I hate plastic bags and wish they would stop making them, I recycle all plastic and glass it doesn't take a lot of effort

Bu M.
Bu M6 years ago

Ban ALL plastic wide!

Lauren A.
Lauren A6 years ago

Oh gosh this is horrifying.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill6 years ago

Plastic is also make with oil.
I recycle most of my plastic.
Why did we stop using paper bags? At least when they are thrown out of car windows they will rot into the soil.

Carrie Anne Brown

sad news :( but thanks for sharing

James Hager
James Hager6 years ago

wonderful, thats what i wanted to hear, we're polluting the cleanest landmass on earth(sarcasm)
thanks for the article, good read

Bharat Prajapati
Bharat Prajapati6 years ago

ohh yes, Remove the plastics before it's makes dustbin of the earth..............

Help the "Earth"...................

Yulan Lawson
Yulan Lawson6 years ago

Thanks for sharing, because we really need to be more responsible and aware as a human species of what we make and start disposing of our rubbish and putting it in the bin, not out the window or left on the beach like I see so many people do on the Sunshine coast beaches of Australia and holiday resorts overseas.