A British-led expedition to the Arctic has made a depressing discovery in the middle of the Arctic Ocean: polystyrene.
The researchers found chunks of plastic and polystyrene on ice floes in the ocean where previously they hadn’t been able to even access due to sea ice.
This is the furthest north of any ocean that plastic detritus has been discovered, only 1,000 miles from the North Pole. It would seem there really is no getting away from plastics in the oceans.
The researchers were part of Pen Hadow’s Arctic Mission to sail to the North Pole, collecting important data along the way, which is still taking place. British explorer Hadow is the only person to have ever trekked solo from Canada to the geographic North Pole without resupply.
The team wasn’t expecting to find polystyrene so far from land, but then they weren’t expecting to be able to access an area that is usually covered by ice all year round.
“For the 25 years I have been exploring the Arctic I have never seen such large and very visible items of rubbish,” said Hadow, the Guardian reports. “The blocks of polystyrene were just sitting on top of the ice.”
One of the large pieces they found was on an ice floe in the middle of international waters in the central Arctic Ocean region – further than anyone has ever got before without icebreakers.
“Finding pieces of rubbish like this is a worrying sign that melting ice may be allowing high levels of pollution to drift into these areas,” marine biologist Tim Gordon of Exeter University, and one of the researchers, added. “This is potentially very dangerous for the Arctic’s wildlife.”
Many rivers – which accumulate and distribute plastic pollution – flow into the Arctic. Before now, it usually got trapped in the ice. Not nice, but at least it’s not going anywhere. Now the sea ice is melting, the new danger is that the pollution, especially tiny pieces like microplastics, will be swept further out to sea.
The discovery of the plastics so far north in this expedition has confirmed this danger. With projections showing that the Arctic will beice-free in summer by 2040, with easier access opening up human exploration – and exploitation, in many forms – the researchers are worried about the previously untouched area for both flora and fauna.
“The Arctic Ocean’s wildlife used to be protected by a layer of sea ice all year round,” Gordon said. “Now that is melting away, this environment will be exposed to commercial fishing, shipping, and industry for the first time in history. We need to seriously consider how best to protect the Arctic’s animals from these new threats.”