Scientists Discover ‘Record’ Concentrations of Arctic Microplastics

Researchers have found record levels of microplastics in Arctic sea ice and for the first time have been able to trace where those tiny plastics might be coming from.

German scientists from theAlfred Wegener Institute (AWI)tested ice core samples from five regions across the Arctic Ocean. Theydiscovered a record level of plastics, many small enough to be ingested by the microorganismsthat filter the water and are often key prey for fish and other wildlife.

Publishing in “Nature Communications“, the scientists report an average of 12,000 pieces of microplastic per liter of sea ice. Many of those were small fragments broken off from much larger pieces of plastic, like plastic packaging.

Other culprits included paints, nylon, polyester, andcellulose acetate which is used as a base for many clothing fabrics andmay be used in other manufacturing methods.

The volume of plastics is around two to three times greater than previously found. This means we could have been significantly underestimatingour microplastics problem, particularly in terms of sea ice and how it freezes and retains plastic.

“During our work, we realised that more than half of the microplastic particles trapped in the ice were less than a twentieth of a millimetre wide, which means they could easily be ingested by arctic microorganisms like ciliates, but also by copepods,” lead researcher Dr Ilka Peeken said in a press release. “No one can say for certain how harmful these tiny plastic particles are for marine life, or ultimately also for human beings.”

Also fascinating was that the varietyand volumeof plastics contained in this sample allowed the researchers to do something groundbreaking: they were able to trace the plasticsback to find their probable source.

Where isArctic Microplastic Coming From?

The researchers determined thatice floes which are driven by the Canadian Basin appear to have a high concentration of polyethylene — a packaging material.

Scientists in this study believe that it is highly likely this “slick” of plastics comes from theGreat Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest collection of plastics on Earth that is located between California and Hawaii. To give an idea of its size, estimates suggest it’s about twice as big Texas, and thanks to our insatiable appetite for plastic, it is growing all the time.

Other sources of arctic microplastics included paint particles that had flaked off from sea shipsand nylon stands left in the water by fishing nets.

This finding is interesting because it tells us something new: we’ve assumed that the Arctic would be spoiled by plastics from other geographic locations finding their way to the area. This is no longer true.

“These findings suggest that both the expanding shipping and fishing activities in the Arctic are leaving their mark,”DrIlka Peeken explainsin a press release. “The high microplastic concentrations in the sea ice can thus not only be attributed to sources outside the Arctic Ocean. Instead, they also point to local pollution in the Arctic.”

What Does This Discovery Mean?

There’s one other major facet of this study. It’s estimated that there is around five trillion tonnes of plastics floating in our oceans. Governments around the world are slowly taking steps to try to mitigate and drive down that volume of plastics withbans on microbeadsand other microplastics in our health care and beauty products.

Yet, the scientists in this study warn we could see more plastics released into our oceans even after we have reduced our plastics output. That’s thanks to climate change. As sea ice melts, it which willdump more plasticsinto our seas.

This study has been called a benchmark,because it offers a much-needed glimpse not justinto theplastics problem we have, but how it may be travelling in our oceans, and how we may be storing up microplastic problems for years to come.

While this is sobering, it providesimportant insightthat will allow us to target our interventions and stop our microplastics problem.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

68 comments

Michael F
Michael Friedmann2 months ago

Thank You for Sharing This !!!

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Henry M
Henry M3 months ago

Micro-plastics are an environmental issue that many people are not even aware of.

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Peggy B
Peggy B3 months ago

Good article. TYFS.

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Peggy B
Peggy B3 months ago

Do they know what impact they will have as we consume them?

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Marie W
Marie W3 months ago

Thank you.

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hELEN h
hELEN hEARFIELD3 months ago

tyfs

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KimJ M
KimJ M7 months ago

tfs

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KimJ M
KimJ M7 months ago

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KimJ M
KimJ M7 months ago

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KimJ M
KimJ M7 months ago

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