A British led team has discovered large chunks of polystyrene plastic lying on ice in remote areas of the Arctic Ocean, just 1,000 miles from the north pole. The discovery was among the furthest north that such plastic pollution has been spotted, as it becomes more common the world’s oceans. The area was previously inaccessible to scientists due to sea ice.
Led by marine biologist Tim Gordon, of Exeter University, the group of scientists from the UK, US, Hong Kong, and Norway said the discovery shows how far plastic pollution has spread. Some researchers fear that with climate change melting the Arctic’s ice, plastic pollution is now flowing into new areas. At the same time, thawing ice is now releasing plastic that has been trapped.
The scientists were part of explorer Pen Hadow’s mission to sail to the north pole. Hadow holds the distinction of being the only person to have travelled solo, without any resupplies, from Canada to the north pole.
The plastic was found in areas that were covered with ice year-round, until the last several years. Two large chunks of plastic were found on ice floes 77° and 80° north, in the midst of the central Arctic Ocean.
“For the 25 years I have been exploring the Arctic I have never seen such large and very visible items of rubbish,” according to Hadow. “The blocks of polystyrene were just sitting on top of the ice.”
Gordon said that “Finding pieces of rubbish like this is a worrying sign that melting ice may be allowing high levels of pollution to drift into these areas. This is potentially very dangerous for the Arctic’s wildlife.”
Thanks to higher rates of ice melt due to climate change, the expedition sailed further into the Arctic’s international waters without icebreakers than any previous attempt. 40 percent of the Arctic Ocean is now navigable in summer.
Scientists are concerned that large plastic chunks such as these can disintegrate into “microplastics,” which can inadvertently be consumed by filer feeding animals. From there, they are passed up through the food chain, threatening wildlife from plankton to polar bears. Researchers plan to test for microplastics by sampling seawater they collected from the area.
The scientists are also investigating the effect of human produced noise pollution on Arctic wildlife, given the new accessibility of the area to commercial fishing, shipping, and industry. Animals such as cod, whales, seals, and walruses use sound to communicate underwater, and could potentially be disrupted by new activity.
According to the team’s on-board wildlife biologist, Heather Bauscher:
“Quality research and the development of sound management strategies are necessary to protect the Arctic’s wildlife: this is crucial at a time of such dramatic change.”