Record level of plastic microparticles found in Arctic pack ice

By melting ice samples taken from the Arctic Ocean glacier, a team of scientists has made an alarming discovery. These researchers, who come from the German Alfred Wegener Institute for polar and marine research, have indeed discovered that ice in the Arctic Ocean was not spared by plastic pollution. They found 17 types of plastics in these frozen waters during three Arctic expeditions in 2014 and 2015. Of the 5 areas of the Arctic they analyzed, none were exempt of plastic waste. Their study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

In one of the samples collected, the researchers found 12,000 microparticles of plastic per liter of frozen water. This is the highest concentration of microparticles ever found in the Arctic. The results are two to three times higher than previous records. In the samples taken, researchers found food packaging, nylon from synthetic fabrics, fishing equipment and cigarette filters. According to the researchers, some of the largest quantities of microplastics found in the Arctic are probably from the huge pile of garbage floating in the middle of the North Pacific, which is a kind of “8th continent”.

Another observation that scientists have drawn from this study is that the samples contained almost exclusively polyethylene, a plastic found in the composition of bags, bottles and packaging. The ice containing water from Siberia was on the other hand more polluted with paint from ships and nylon fishing equipment.

Two-thirds of the microparticles collected during the expeditions of the German researchers measured a maximum of one twentieth of a millimeter. Some of the particles removed measured only 11 microns. This represents about one sixth of the diameter of a human hair. This means that these microparticles “could easily be ingested by Arctic microorganisms,” said Ilka Peeken, one of the authors of the study. She also points out that “no one knows for sure if tiny these tiny particles of plastic are dangerous for marine life, or ultimately for humans”.

What we do know, however, is that these micro-plastics contribute to the pollution of our seas. And that they will not remain indefinitely stuck in the pack ice. When the latter starts to melt, these micro-particles will be released into the water. “These microparticles of plastic are often colonized by bacteria and algae that make them bigger, sometimes they mix with the algae, which makes them sink much faster to the bottom of the water,” says Mélanie. Bergmann, biologist at AWI and co-author of the study.

This discovery shows that no ocean surface is spared by plastic waste pollution, and a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2016 stated that in 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans.

Abbad Farid

Abbad holds a degree in Journalism from the University of Cumbria and covers mostly world news for The Talking Democrat