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Plastic Pollution in Antarctica 5 Times Worse Than Expected

A seal entangled in plastic netting on Bird Island. Claire Waluda

Not only have microplastic particles infiltrated the pristine Antarctic, the problem is much worse than anyone thought.

Scientists from the University of Hull and the British Antarctic Survey have determined that the levels of microplastics are five times higher than previous estimates. The results were published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.


These tiny beads of plastic come from cosmetics or shred off of larger plastic items such as clothing or bottles. Research shows that microplastics can turn up in ice cores, across the seafloor, throughout the ocean and on every beach worldwide. According to UN News, "as many as 51 trillion microplastic particles—500 times more than stars in our galaxy—litter our seas, seriously threatening marine wildlife."

Microplastics enter the oceans via wastewater. However, as the researchers report, more than half of the research stations in the Antarctic have no wastewater treatment systems. The scientists suggest that the plastic may be getting across the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which was thought to be nearly impenetrable.

"Antarctica is thought to be a highly isolated, pristine wilderness. The ecosystem is very fragile with whales, seals and penguins consuming krill and other zooplankton as a major component of their diet," said the study's lead author, Dr. Catherine Waller, an expert in ecology and marine biology at University of Hull.

"Our research highlights the urgent need for a co-ordinated effort to monitor and assess the levels of microplastics around the Antarctic continent and Southern Ocean."

A press release notes that the Southern Ocean, which covers approximately 8.5 million square miles and represents 5.4 percent of the world's oceans, is under increasing threat from fishing, pollution and the introduction of non-native species. Climate change, which leads to rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification, is also a threat.

The effects of microplastics on marine life in this region are currently unclear.

"We have monitored the presence of large plastic items in Antarctica for over 30 years. While we know that bigger pieces of plastic can be ingested by seabirds or cause entanglements in seals, the effects of microplastics on marine animals in the Southern Ocean are as yet unknown," biologist Dr. Claire Waluda, a co-author at British Antarctic Survey, said.

"This paper represents an excellent first step towards recognizing the presence of microplastics in Antarctica and allows us to call for international effort in monitoring the situation whilst it is still in its earliest stages."

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