Scientists have discovered a new garbage patch — this time floating in the remote, frozen reaches of the Arctic. Plastics discarded in Europe and the East Coast of North America slowly drift to a watery graveyard north of Norway, according to a new study — endangering wildlife already struggling to adapt to a changing climate.
There are obscene amounts of plastic drifting, floating, and sinking through the Earth’s oceans. Between five and 13 million metric tons entered the ocean in 2010 alone, according to a 2015 study. Plastic poses a particularly acute threat to wildlife, which can become entangled in it or eat it, causing birds, fish, and marine mammals to slowly starve.
We’ve seen evidence that plastic is making its way to the Arctic — somehow. Microplastics have been found embedded in Arctic ice cores, and photos snapped from a deep-sea Arctic observatory suggest that the amount of plastic litter sinking to the ocean floor has been increasing for more than a decade. But where that plastic is coming from is something of a mystery, because the region’s inhospitable climates had prevented a thorough survey. So in 2013, the Tara Oceans circumpolar expedition zigged and zagged around the Arctic Circle, sampling for plastic.
The expedition team came back with some good news, and some bad news. The good news was that a little more than a third of the 42 sites the expedition dragged for plastic didn’t have any. The bad news was that the expedition discovered the spot where all that plastic was accumulating: between 100 and 1200 tons were concentrated in the Greenland and Barents seas, according to a paper published today in the journal Science Advances.
“Even though the vast majority of the Arctic is fine, there’s this bullseye, there’s this hotspot of very, very polluted waters,” says study author Erik van Sebille who was at Imperial College London when this research took place, and is now at the University of Utrecht.
This garbage patch is actually on the small side compared to the infamous Pacific garbage patch, and the garbage patches in the Mediterranean. In fact, this new Arctic plastic dump only accounts for about three percent of the total plastic in our oceans. Still, it was jarring to discover so much plastic in a place considered relatively pristine, study author Andrés Cózar from the University of Cadiz in Spain told The Verge in an email. “We did not expect to find high concentrations of plastic there, so far from the populated regions and the large sources of plastic pollution,” he says.
“[Isn’t] it kind of ironic that days before Earth Day there is more demonstrated proof of widespread contamination of our plastic waste in places that are so far from the human footprint,” echoed marine ecologist Chelsea Rochman at the University of Toronto in an email to The Verge. Rochman, who was not involved in the study, added, “I think this is a great contribution to the field.”
The results back up earlier work from other labs that examined the sea floor — so they weren’t a surprise to marine ecologist Melanie Bergmann from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany. (Bergmann was not involved in this latest study.) She told The Verge in an email that she suspects that even larger volumes of plastic have sunk beneath the surface.
The plastic probably wasn’t dumped there by local populations. The main industrial source of plastic pollution up there would be from fishing and fisheries. But the Arctic plastic was surprisingly low in fishing line compared to the Mediterranean garbage patch. And most of it had been pretty thoroughly pulverized, suggesting that the plastic had been pummeled by the ocean and fried by the sun as it migrated north from somewhere far away.
To figure out where it came from, the research team followed a flotilla of objects already drifting through the world’s oceans: satellite-tracked buoys deployed by governmental organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration (NOAA). The data these buoys produce help researchers understand ocean currents, winds, temperature, salinity — information critical to things like search and rescue operations, or oil spill cleanups.
The researchers pinpointed the plastics’ origin based on the paths these buoys followed — which suggests the plastic in the garbage patch north of Norway probably came from Europe and the East Coast of North America. It’s possible that shipping in the area — which could increase as the ice sheets continue to melt — contributes, as well. (Bergmann, who tracks sea-floor plastic accumulation, suspects that local fisheries may be contributing plastic waste as well — just that this plastic is sinking rather than floating on the surface.)
“If a plastic bottle or a plastic bag gets into the Atlantic from Europe or the East Coast of the US, that has a very good chance of ending up in the Arctic,” van Sebille says. “The problem with plastic specifically being in the Arctic is that it’s going to get into the food chain of animals that are very much under threat already, that are struggling to survive in a changing climate.”