300bn plastic pieces from Europe and the US polluting Arctic waters
HUNDREDS of billions of pieces of plastic are polluting the once-pristine waters of the Arctic, a study has found.
Rubbish from Europe and the US is being swept north by ocean currents, the scientists said.
Levels of plastic found east of Greenland and in the Barents Sea off Norway and Russia were far higher than expected for the sparsely populated regions.
The researchers gave a ‘mid-range’ estimate that there are around 300billion pieces of plastic floating in the ice-free waters of the Arctic Ocean, weighing in total up to 1,200 tons.
And large amounts of waste could already have sunk to the ocean floor. They warned the pollution could harm fragile Arctic wildlife, as animals can mistake plastic for food and choke when they try to eat it. Northern fulmar birds on the Arctic Svalbard islands north of Norway, for instance, have been found with high levels of plastic in their stomachs from discarded plastic bags, fishing nets and other trash.
Plastic waste can also contain chemicals that can poison marine life.
The international team of scientists said the north-eastern section of the Arctic Ocean ‘appeared as a dead end for the transport of plastic pollution’.
Hundreds of thousands of mostly tiny bits of plastic were found per square mile in that part of the ocean in the survey by the Tara Oceans circumpolar expedition, which trawled 42 Arctic sites with nets in 2013. Much of the plastic was apparently old and had floated north from Europe and North America. Levels were comparable to those in ocean gyres, which are vast swirling currents where plastic debris is known to accumulate, the researchers wrote in the journal Science Advances.
Lead author Andres Cozar, an ecologist at the University of Cadiz in Spain, said ‘99% of the floating plastic in the Arctic was confined in the Greenland and Barents seas’ and that ‘plastic pollution in the rest of the Arctic Circle was low or absent’.
However, global warming could open up the Arctic to more pollution, partly as sea ice shrinks, the team warned.
The study added: ‘High loads of marine plastic pollution may become prevalent in the Arctic in the future.’
Separately, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, which was not involved in the report, is examining wider pollution risks from plastics.
Lars-Otto Reiersen, executive secretary of the AMAP, said: ‘We’re looking to see how big the problem is for the Arctic – both the physical plastic and the chemicals attached to the surface.’