The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Melting Arctic Ice Could Unlock Massive Amounts of Frozen Microplastics
Out of the nearly 300 million tons of plastic created in 2012, 10 percent of it ended up in oceans, according to Phys.org. That trash has to go somewhere—washing onto coastlines and estuaries, or floating in the vast ocean. You may have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre where an enormous amount of trash circulates. Now, however, it looks like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has an unassuming competitor in trapping marine debris: the Arctic.
A recently published study in Earth’s Future found that a significant amount of microplastics, sub-millimeter broken down pieces of plastic, sit frozen in Arctic sea ice—enough to designate the Arctic as a major global sink for these tiny plastic particles. If melting trends continue at their current rate, explain the authors, the sea ice could unlock over one trillion pieces of microplastics over the next decade alone.
“The abundance of microplastics was substantial, ranging from 38 to 234 particles per cubic meter of ice,” the report said. “Although litter has been reported in northern Europe including the Arctic, this is the first report of microplastic in the Arctic and the microplastic concentrations we found are at least two orders of magnitude greater than those reported in Atlantic waters north of Scotland or in waters of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.”
The authors hypothesized that the particles entered the Arctic from the Pacific Ocean, where both marine debris and microplastics are common. Microplastics accumulate in the oceans from three main sources: microbeads in cosmetics, breaking down of plastic debris and fibers from washing machines, according to the paper.
Ironically, the authors did not intend to study microplastics; instead, they set out to search for sediments and diatoms in sea ice cores from two different National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA studies, and unintentionally discovered these synthetic particles in varying locations throughout the Arctic Ocean. Their prevalence encouraged the researchers to examine the remaining ice cores, adhering to strict sampling and handling protocols as to not introduce their own plastic particles into the samples. The pieces observed were mostly blue, black, green and red in color, with rayon being the most prevalent material (which the authors point out is technically not a plastic, but a manmade semi-synthetic material used in cigarette filters and hygiene products). Other materials included polyester, nylon, polypropylene, polystyrene, acrylic and polyethylene, according to the study.
So, how do these particulates impact marine life?
Marine organisms ingest these particulates, and there’s evidence that the chemicals in these plastics build-up in the organism. A 2013 study found that a species of marine worm, for example, became affected by the toxins, and some even died. Another study, published that same year, found that these plastics and toxins accumulate in the food chain.
And larger marine debris poses additional threats: Fishing nets, plastic bags and tires can sink to the ocean floor and smother coral reefs, while fishing gear can entangle marine mammals and other animals, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Other marine life, like sea turtles and birds, can forsake plastics for food, which can lead to malnutrition or starvation.
Sea ice melt already has a range of consequences, including rising sea levels, disruption to food chains, and habitat loss for many species, but this study points out that climate change has unexpected consequences for the oceans—like Arctic ice unlocking these plastics. The authors suggest that their findings indicate a need to sample Antarctic ice to determine the presence of microplastics there too, and that further studies need to be undertaken to fully understand the environmental impacts of these particulates in the marine environment.
This article was originally published on Oceana's blog.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
by Jordan Davidson
Taking action to stop the mercury from rising is a matter of life and death in the U.S., according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances.
By Alisa Opar
For Chinook salmon, the urge to return home and spawn isn't just strong — it's imperative. And for the first time in more than 65 years, at least 23 fish that migrated as juveniles from California's San Joaquin River and into the Pacific Ocean have heeded that call and returned as adults during the annual spring run.
By Jessica Corbett
Dozens of students, parents, teachers and professionals joined a Friday protest organized by Extinction Rebellion that temporarily stalled morning rush-hour traffic in London's southeasten borough of Lewisham to push politicians to more boldly address dangerous air pollution across the city.
Jose A. Bernat Bacete / Moment / Getty Images
By Bridget Shirvell
On a farm in upstate New York, a cheese brand is turning millions of pounds of food scraps into electricity needed to power its on-site businesses. Founded by eight families, each with their own dairy farms, Craigs Creamery doesn't just produce various types of cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss and Muenster cheeses, sold in chunks, slices, shreds and snack bars; they're also committed to becoming a zero-waste operation.
By Jessica A. Knoblauch
Summers in the Midwest are great for outdoor activities like growing your garden or cooling off in one of the area's many lakes and streams. But some waters aren't as clean as they should be.
That's in part because coal companies have long buried toxic waste known as coal ash near many of the Midwest's iconic waterways, including Lake Michigan. Though coal ash dumps can leak harmful chemicals like arsenic and cadmium into nearby waters, regulators have done little to address these toxic sites. As a result, the Midwest is now littered with coal ash dumps, with Illinois containing the most leaking sites in the country.