The Entire Arctic Ecosystem Is Awash in Plastic Pollution, Dire Study Reports

Plastic has seeped into the air, ocean, ice, snow, seafloor, and shorelines of the Arctic.
Plastic has seeped into the air, ocean, ice, snow, seafloor, and shorelines of the Arctic.Plastic has seeped into the air, ocean, ice, snow, seafloor, and shorelines of the Arctic.
Plastic pollution. Image: Melanie Bergmann/AWI
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Plastic pollution has thoroughly seeped into almost every corner of the Arctic—including the air, ocean, ice, snow, seafloor, and shorelines—placing new pressures on a polar region that’s already reeling from the effects of human-driven climate change, confirms a new study. 

Despite its remote location, the Arctic is as awash with plastic waste as many populated areas, posing a threat to wildlife while also exacerbating the effects of climate change, according to researchers led by Melanie Bergmann, a senior scientist at Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI). In a review article published on Tuesday in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, Bergmann and her colleagues pull together findings about the sources, extent, and potential impacts of plastic pollution and warn that “mitigation is urgently needed at both regional and international levels to decrease plastic production and utilization.”

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“I have studied plastic pollution in the Arctic for 10 years,” said Bergmann in an email. “It started with my discovery of a strong increase in marine debris on the deep seafloor of our HAUSGARTEN observatory between 2002 and 2011. This spurred more research on plastic pollution in this region, especially in recent years. So, it was time to bring it all together and synthesize our current knowledge.” 

More than 380 million tonnes of plastic currently ends up in Earth’s oceans each year, and worldwide plastic production is projected to double by 2045. A lot of the waste breaks apart into microplastics, which are specks that can be so small that they are invisible to the naked eye. These fragments are particularly insidious because they can permeate practically any habitat. 

Large chunks of plastic junk have proved fatal to many marine animals, as they can become choked or trapped by it—or simply end up with deadly bellyfuls of waste. Microplastics are, likewise, a major ecological and public health issue all around the world, because so many species in the oceans passively ingest them. As a result, these tiny particles end up passing through the bodies of animals higher up the food chain, including humans. 

In their new review of field research and models, Bergmann’s team confirmed the presence of microplastics across the water column of the Arctic Ocean. The tiny specks of pollution were also detected on beaches, in the seafloor, and in the ice floes that float across the region each year.

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“I was surprised about the levels of microplastic in the deep-sea sediments at our observatory, which were up to 13,000 particles-per-kilogram of sediment and the ingestion rate of microplastics consumed by Arctic zooplankton, at the base of the food web,” noted Bergmann. 

Exposure to microplastics is linked to many health problems in humans and wildlife, though the full extent of these threats is still being assessed. To that end, Bergmann and her colleagues emphasized that very little is known about the impact of plastic pollution on Arctic ecosystems.

“Next, I would like to quantify the levels of air pollution in the region, to gauge the importance of this pathway to the North, and how much animals living in the water column and on the seafloor, where we recorded very high concentrations are affected by plastic pollution,” Bergmann said.

In addition to the negative effects of microplastic exposure, darker-colored particles can ooze into ice and snow, which lowers reflectivity and causes more sunlight to be absorbed into the environment. This pattern is also amplifying climate change by hastening the decline of sea ice in the Arctic, even as the region is already warming three times as rapidly as any other place on Earth. Bergmann said more research was desperately needed on this possible feedback loop between plastic pollution and climate change in the Arctic. 

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In addition to the darkening of snow, “it has also been argued that microplastics in the air can act as nuclei and promote cloud formation and wet deposition,” Bergmann said. “If pollution is high and this happens a lot, this could affect not only weather but also climate. So, these processes deserve further research.” 

Bergmann and her colleagues found that plastic runoff in the Arctic comes from a variety of sources on both land and sea. Fishing vessels are pernicious polluters, as equipment that ends up overboard can reach far-flung reaches of the ocean. 

That said, the Arctic is also inundated by microplastics from wastewater generated by both local communities and populations hundreds of miles away. Plastic waste on the Siberian coast is transported to high latitudes when it gets locked up in ice floes that form during the fall. These floes then drift across the Arctic Ocean where they eventually melt in the summer, dumping the garbage into these delicate ecosystems. The team also highlights the role of rivers in delivering plastic debris to the region—though the Arctic Ocean only makes up one percent of the total volume of the world’s oceans, it receives a tenth of the world’s water discharge from rivers.

“Before the review, I also was not quite so aware of the local sources of plastic pollution in the Arctic from settlements with none to poor solid waste or water treatment facilities,” Bergmann said. “I also would not have expected fisheries to be such an important source of plastic pollution, especially in the European sector.”

To address this escalating problem, the team advocated for more field expeditions and other forms of research to help quantify the impact of plastic pollution on Arctic ecosystems and communities. The researchers also pointed to political actions, such as the need for a global plastic treaty and more regulation about plastic production and waste management.

“Regardless of its remoteness, plastic pollution has infiltrated the Arctic from the atmosphere to the deep ocean floor, with pollution levels sufficiently high for some regions to be considered accumulation areas,” Bergmann’s team said in the study. “We have barely scratched the surface when it comes to impacts on Arctic life, including human communities in the Arctic, requiring further and urgent research.”