The Polarstern icebreaker, which scientists used to monitor plastic in the Arctic.
Photo: S. Arndt

Climate change and a never ending stream of plastics are two of humanity’s worst legacies that will reshape the planet for eons. Now, they’re getting to work in tandem in the remote stretches of the Arctic.

New findings published in Nature Communications shed light on how ocean currents are steering more and more plastic into a region that for centuries was largely free of humans. Much of it is microplastic, tiny pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters long that can impact marine life.

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Coupled with other research done in recent years, the study’s authors wrote that “polar waters can no longer be considered free of plastic litter.” And with climate change causing an uptick in shipping, the Arctic plastic pollution problem is likely to only get worse.

Plastic in our ocean is, sadly, nothing new. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a plastic-filled soup roughly twice the size of Texas, has garnered a huge amount of attention. We’ve also recently learned microplastic is working its way up the marine food chain. There’s even a term for the all-new plastic ecosystem we’re creating: “the plastisphere.”

Oh, and there’s probably plastic in your beer.

But because the Arctic is such a challenging environment to track, there’s been relatively little research on what’s happening with plastic there. The new study gathered sea ice samples near Greenland in 2014 and 2015 that the researchers then analyzed in a lab, comparing them to previously gathered cores from there and elsewhere in the Arctic. They also looked at satellite images to get a sense of how that ice traveled across the Arctic, a clue which helped unlock where the plastic came from.

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The result show an astounding amount of plastic in the icepack, and by extension, the surrounding ocean waters. Up to 12,000 pieces of plastic were present in just a liter of water. Two-thirds of that came in the smallest detectable size of 11 micrometers, thinner than a human hair.

An ice core being analyzed for plastic.
Photo: T. Vankann

“They could easily be ingested by arctic microorganisms like ciliates, but also by copepods,” Ilka Peeken, a biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute who led the study, said in a statement. “No one can say for certain how harmful these tiny plastic particles are for marine life, or ultimately also for human beings.”

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Overall, Peeken and the research team found 17 types of plastic in the Arctic, including stuff used to make packaging material, cigarette filters, paint, and fishing nets. Their satellite analysis revealed the Fram Strait, just to the east of Greenland, is a major gateway for plastic coming from Europe and North America. The Bering Strait is also letting plastic in from the Pacific. Large portions of the Pacific-side plastic consisted of lightweight polyethylene used in packing material. This stuff can travel long distances, suggesting that it came from none other than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“This is evidence we are dealing with a truly global contaminant,” Chelsea Rochman, a microplastic researcher at the University of Toronto, told Earther in an email.

The paint and fishing nets plastic tell a different story—one of localized plastic pollution from increased shipping, which is being driven by the rapid Arctic meltdown.

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With climate change expected to further melt Arctic sea ice, ship traffic is likely to increase as countries vie for newly-exposed resources, and as tourism ramps up. Unless better regulations are put in place, plastic pollution will become more common.

Having this study as a kind of baseline can help track how much worse things will get, and help governments set policy to reduce plastic at the source. But like climate change, it’s going to take everyone doing their part.

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“We wrote an opinion piece in PNAS not too long ago about the need for international policy,” Rochman said. “It’s results like these that lead us to that conclusion. Microplastics don’t observe borders, so why should the policy?”