19 April 2017

Publication in Science Advances

Large quantities of floating plastic pollution from Europe and US in Arctic Ocean

Photo collage of plastic fragments found in the Arctic Ocean. Photo: Andres Cozar.
Photo collage of plastic fragments found in the Arctic Ocean. Photo: Andres Cozar

The Arctic Ocean contains a surprisingly large amount of plastic waste pollution, especially compared to the low population of the area. The plastic in the Arctic comes from Europe and the US, researchers show in a publication that appears in Science Advances on 19 April. The authors, among which Erik van Sebille (Utrecht University), found that the Greenland and Barents seas have accumulated hundreds of tons of plastic debris. The debris is composed of approximately 300 billion pieces, mainly fragments around the size of a grain of rice, which makes it very difficult to clean up.

The team, consisting of researchers from eight countries, went on a five month expedition to the Arctic Ocean to complete a global map of floating plastic pollution. Most of the Arctic waters did not contain much plastic, but there was an area in the north of the Greenland and Barents seas with quite high plastic concentrations. Van Sebille, who was affiliated with Imperial College London at the time of the expedition, explains: “Using gps data from over 17,000 drifting buoys, we discovered that the plastic in the Arctic originates from Europe and the US. It is our plastic that ends up there, so it is our responsibility to fix the problem.”

Plastic concentration - fig 1d Cózar et al., Science Advances
Plastic accumulation zone - figure 1d of the Cózar et al. manuscript, Science Advances

Gulf Stream

Plastic is transported from the North Atlantic to the Arctic by the Gulf Stream, a huge ocean current that carries warm waters from the Gulf of Mexico to northern Europe and the US east coast. Once it gets to the Arctic, this current sinks and travels back to the equator, but the plastic does not sink with it, leaving it to build up in Arctic waters.

Any extra pressure on the animals in the Arctic can be disastrous.
Erik van Sebille
Erik van Sebille
Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research Utrecht

Arctic fauna

Plastic is a problem for local wildlife, as animals mistakenly eat it or become tangled in it, which damages their health and can kill them. Van Sebille: “The Arctic is one of the most pristine ecosystems we still have. And at the same time it is probably the ecosystem most under threat from climate change and sea ice melt. Any extra pressure on the animals in the Arctic, from plastic litter or other pollution, can be disastrous.” Could we just clean up the plastic? Van Sebille says: “Once plastic is in the ocean, it breaks down into little pieces and becomes intermingled with algae, making it difficult to filter out. Prevention is the best cure.”

Publication

A. Cózar, E. Martí, C. M. Duarte, J. García-de-Lomas, E. van Sebille*, T. J. Ballatore, V. M. Eguíluz, J. I. González-Gordillo, M. L. Pedrotti, F. Echevarría, R. Troublè, X. Irigoien, The Arctic Ocean as a dead end for floating plastics in the North Atlantic branch of the Thermohaline Circulation, Sci. Adv. 3, e1600582 (2017)
* affiliated with Utrecht University