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Atlantic currents moving plastic junk into the Arctic, research says

“Middle range” estimate is 300 billion plastic items


This collage of Arctic Ocean plastic, assembled by Andres Cozar, the lead author of a new study

This collage of Arctic Ocean plastic, assembled by Andres Cozar, the lead author of a new study “The Arctic Ocean as a dead end for floating plastics in the North Atlantic branch of the Thermohaline Circulation,” and his colleagues, shows just some of the estimated billions of pieces of plastic in ice-free Arctic waters.

Parts of the Arctic Ocean have become an “important sink of plastic debris,” mainly coming north from the southern latitudes—with 300 billion or more plastic items carried in ice-free Arctic waters.

That’s according to new research published April 19 in the online Science Advances journal, which states the polar ice cap has become “a dead end for the surface transport of floating debris.”

Some of that debris then sinks to the seafloor, the researchers suggest.

Data from 42 sites showed that high concentrations of plastic debris extend up to ice-free Arctic waters around Greenland and north of Norway, pushed there by strong North Atlantic currents.

A lot of this plastic was in the form of small pieces and fishing line. The researchers didn’t find much plastic film, which breaks down quickly, showing that the plastic debris had been in the water for a long time—that is, travelling north from southern points.

Over all, their trawling found surface ice-free waters in the Arctic were slightly polluted with plastic debris, with 37 per cent of their surface net tows being free of plastic.

But this still means the total load of floating plastic for the ice-free waters of the Arctic Ocean ranges between 100 to 1,200 tons (about 200,000 to 2,400,000 pounds,) with 400 tons, or about 800,000 pounds, made up of an estimated 300 billion plastic items “as a midrange estimate.”

And the international team of authors involved in the research said it’s likely that Arctic plastic loads will continue to increase even if less plastic is put into the oceans.

That’s because this accumulation in the Arctic partly feeds from plastic adrift at lower latitudes.

The researchers said the possibility of plastic pollution affecting the Arctic food web merits more study because, “the growing level of human activity in an increasingly warm and ice-free Arctic suggests that high loads of marine plastic pollution may become prevalent in the Arctic.”

While their research focussed on ice-free waters, ice cores collected across the Arctic already point to “a considerable abundance of microplastics into the sea ice,” they said.

Another research paper, released earlier this year, also found more garbage sits on the Arctic seabed than ever before, linking its presence to areas that have seen a boom in vessel traffic as Arctic ice recedes.

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