Giant ‘hotspot’ of plastic waste discovered in the Arctic Ocean

Scientists have discovered a new “hotspot” of plastic pollution accumulating in the waters of the Arctic north of Norway, and they believe that the problem will only worsen in the years ahead as melting ice due to climate change leads to an increase in human activity in the region.

According to Newser and AFP reports, an international team of researchers studied 42 different Arctic sites aboard a French schooner in 2013, and found that plastic bags, bottles, and toys were accumulating in waters located to the east of Greenland and to the north of Scandinavia.

The scientists, who reported their findings Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, noted that around one-third of the sites had no plastic refuse. However, multiple locations in both the Greenland and Barents seas north of Norway contained between 100 and 1,200 tons of plastic.

While that figure only represents approximately 3 percent of the estimated 110 million tons of plastic polluting the planet’s oceans, the study authors emphasized that the figure is still rather high considering the relatively remote nature of the affected area. The reason for the pollution, they explained, is because of an ocean current known as the Thermohaline Circulation.

Plastics originate in Europe and the US, travel north via currents

Sometimes referred to as “the global ocean conveyer belt,” the Thermohaline Circulation is a deepwater current that is directly affected by global differences in temperature and salinity, the AFP and New York Times said. As the current brings warm surface water north to the Arctic, it also appears to be bringing plastic waste from more populated parts of the world.

Those plastic bits have become fragmented by the time they reach the Arctic, the media outlets added, and upon their arrival, they become trapped by landmasses and the polar ice cap. Most of the plastic is between 0.5 millimeters to 12.6 millimeters, and a few larger pieces were found, but the researchers are still concerned what impact this trash could ultimate have on the area.

“Even though the vast majority of the Arctic is fine, there’s this bullseye, there’s this hotspot of very, very polluted waters,” study author Erik van Sebille, who was at Imperial College London when the research occurred but is now with the University of Utrecht, told The Verge.

“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,” he told the website. “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.”

Since the origin of the plastic waste is believed to have come from northwestern Europe, the UK and the east coast of the US, lead author Dr. Andrés Cózar from the University of Cádiz in Spain told the Times that dealing the plastic problem will “require international agreements.”


Image credit: Photo collage by Andres Cozar