The Arctic is filling up with plastic pollution

Plastic pollution has become a global problem, clogging up our rivers and flowing into our oceans, and breaking down into microplastics that reach far-flung corners of the world, from protected lands in national parks to the top of Mount Everest. Microplastics have even been found to fall out of the sky with snow in the Arctic—a once pristine wilderness that is now seeing certain areas fill up with plastic, with potentially devastating impacts for the climate and for Arctic species.

In a new review study published by the Alfred Wegener Institute, which carries out research in the Arctic and Antarctic, experts drew on nearly 200 studies to paint a picture of plastic pollution in the Arctic. “We saw that we reached a critical level,” says Melanie Bergmann, a senior scientist with the institute, “and the main take-home message is really that plastic pollution is very present in all spheres of the Arctic—no nice, white wilderness anymore.”

There are five major plastic accumulation areas around the world, akin to garbage patches that are associated with rotating ocean currents. Previous models have predicted that the Arctic could become a sixth area, and though the challenges of doing fieldwork make it accumulation difficult to pinpoint the state of plastic pollution there, researchers have found high concentrations of plastics in sea ice and on the deep sea floor. Even in this remote part of the world, Bergmann adds, there’s so much pollution that “it may even be that we’re seeing an accumulation area.”

Plastic comes to the Arctic both from local settlements—which bring pollution like fishing nets and wastewater, the latter of which can carry microplastic fibers shed from washing clothes—and from distant regions, the study found. When traveling from farther away, the plastic pollution is carried to the Arctic from ocean currents, rivers, and even “atmospheric transport,” traveling by wind, sea spray, and other atmospheric circulation patterns. Debris has been found in the Arctic from nearby Russia and Norway, but also from as far as the United States, Spain, Argentina, and Brazil. “In a way, the Arctic is kind of the perfect sink,” Bergmann says, “because you get pollutants through the water and through the air from a lot of different directions.”

Initial research indicates that microplastics could make the surface of the snow and ice darker, making it absorb more energy from the sun and potentially speed up its melting. When that snow and ice melt, it means the exposure of more dark surface areas, which could become a feedback loop, increasing warming and melting even further. Microplastics could also potentially change weather patterns, forming droplets in the air that could affect cloud formation, and consequently snow and rain patterns. Plastic is also affecting animals, having “infiltrated all levels of the Arctic food web,” per the study; fish, birds and mammals in the Arctic have both ingested plastic and gotten entangled in plastic litter.

Even if manufacturers stop producing new plastic, existing plastic pollution will continue to break down into microplastics and continue to harm Arctic ecosystems, per the study. But plastic production isn’t expected to stop any time soon. It’s actually expected to increase, both in terms of millions of tons produced and in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

This Alfred Wegener Institute study tells the story of what we know about plastic pollution in the Arctic now, and notes that without an effort to mitigate this waste, the situation could get even worse.”I hope people see this as a warning sign,” Bergmann says, “and that it creates pressure for this UN plastic treaty being negotiated.” That treaty needs to include reduction targets, and countries need to reduce their plastic output, she adds. “Research has shown that recycling and improved waste management are important , they are part of the toolbox that we need, but they alone will not help us to tackle this problem. We need more than that.”

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