Researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute have found for the first time that marine plastic debris can even be found on the sea surface of Arctic waters. Although it is not clear how they got so far north, they are likely to pose new problems for local marine life, they report on the website of the scientific journal Polar Biology. Plastic debris has already turned up in the stomachs of Greenland seabirds and sharks.
In order to measure the level of pollution, the researchers - affiliated with the Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) - took advantage of a scientific expedition that took the Polarstern icebreaker to the Fram Strait, the area between eastern Greenland and Svalbard. .
In July 2012, biologist Melanie Bergmann and her team searched for the floating debris on the sea surface from the ship's bridge and by helicopter, with a combined distance of 5,600 kilometers. "We found a total of 31 pieces of garbage," Bergmann reports.
Although this figure may seem low, it confirms that there is indeed floating debris in the remote Arctic Ocean. "As we carried out our observations from the bridge, 18 meters above sea level, and from a helicopter, we were only able to detect the largest pieces of debris. Therefore, our numbers are probably an underestimate," he explains. It is well known that, over time, plastic breaks down into small fragments at sea, which can only be correctly detected by trawl analysis.
A SIXTH GARBAGE PATCH IN THE SEA OF BARENTS
The plastic litter detected from the Fram Strait could have come from the leakage of a larger patch of litter that may be forming in the Barents Sea, according to computer models. Such accumulation zones are created when large amounts of floating plastic debris are trapped by ocean currents and are concentrated in the center of gyre systems.
We currently know of five garbage patches around the world; and the sixth patch is likely forming in the Barents Sea. Bergmann believes that it can be fed by the densely populated coastal regions of northern Europe. "It is conceivable that some of that garbage then travels even further north and northwest, reaching the Fram Strait," says the AWI biologist, adding: "Another reason there is garbage in the Arctic could be the retreat of Arctic sea ice. As a result, more cruise ships and fishing boats are operating further north, following cod. Most likely, litter from ships intentionally or accidentally ends up in Arctic waters. We hope this trend continue. "