Trillions of Plastic Bits, Swept Up by Current, Are Littering Arctic Waters
The world’s oceans are littered with trillions of pieces of plastic — bottles, bags, toys, fishing nets and more, mostly in tiny particles — and now this seaborne junk is making its way into the Arctic.
In a study published Wednesday in Science Advances, a group of researchers from the University of Cádiz in Spain and several other institutions show that a major ocean current is carrying bits of plastic, mainly from the North Atlantic, to the Greenland and Barents seas, and leaving them there — in surface waters, in sea ice and possibly on the ocean floor.
Because climate change is already shrinking the Arctic sea ice cover, more human activity in this still-isolated part of the world is increasingly likely as navigation becomes easier. As a result, plastic pollution, which has grown significantly around the world since 1980, could spread more widely in the Arctic in decades to come, the researchers say.
Andrés Cózar Cabañas, the study’s lead author and a professor of biology at the University of Cádiz, said he was surprised by the results, and worried about possible outcomes.
“We don’t fully understand the consequences the plastic is having or will have in our oceans,” he said. “What we do know is that this consequences will be felt at greater scale in an ecosystem like this” because it is unlike any other on Earth.
Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic gets into the ocean, and scientists estimate that there may be as much as 110 million tons of plastic trash in the ocean. Though the environmental effects of plastic pollution are not fully understood, plastic pollution has made its way into the food chain. Plastic debris in the ocean was thought to accumulate in big patches, mostly in subtropical gyres — big currents that converge in the middle of the ocean — but scientists estimate that only about 1 percent of plastic pollution is in these gyres and other surface waters in the open ocean.