Plastic is already invading the Arctic Ocean

Arctic water, seabed, ice and snow are covered in high concentrations of microplastics from various parts of the planet, including Spain, according to a new study. The presence of these pollutants affects marine organisms and aggravates the effects of climate change in this area which can no longer be considered virgin.

Between 19 and 23 million metric tons of plastic waste ends up in global waters every year, an amount equivalent to two trucks dumping plastic every minute into rivers, seas and oceans. Being a very stable compound, this pollutant accumulates in the oceans, where it gradually breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, and can even enter the human bloodstream.

The debris avalanche is set to worsen: global plastic production could double by 2045. In this context, even the North Pole cannot escape this global threat, according to a new study published in the journal Nature reviews Earth and environment. This remote area, so far considered pristine, is already covered in worrying plastic pollution.

According to Melanie Bergmann, lead author of the work and researcher at the Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) at the Alfred Wegener Institute (Germany), there are three main routes of arrival for plastic: “Carried from distant sources via the North Sea and Atlantic Current, or across the North Pacific via the Bering Sea; those generated locally in agglomerations without solid waste management systems and wastewater treatment facilities; or by air“, he details.

The scientist explains that one of her team’s goals was to uncover the origin of some of the Arctic stranded trash samples that were collected in the Svalbard Islands during the campaign. The labels or other inscriptions still marked on the plastics they collected helped them. “Surprisingly, Spanish waste was also found, as well as remains from other European countries and even further afield.“, he informs.


Ships, air and rivers carry pollution

The presence of considerable amounts of micro and nanoplastics in Arctic snow and in a glacier has highlighted the speed of air as a means of transport to reach this ocean.

Moreover, despite the fact that the Arctic Ocean represents only 1% of the total volume of the world’s oceans, it receives more than 10% of the world’s discharge of water from rivers, which transport plastic to the ocean, for example from Siberia.

When seawater off the Siberian coast freezes in autumn, suspended microplastics become trapped in the ice. The transpolar drift transports the pack ice into the Fram Strait, between Greenland and Svalbard, where it melts in summer, releasing its plastic load.

On the other hand, some of the most important local sources of pollution are municipal waste and sewage from Arctic communities, as well as plastic waste from ships, especially fishing boats, whose nets and ropes are a problem. serious. Intentionally dumped in the ocean or lost inadvertently, they represent a large part of the plastic debris of the European Arctic sector. In fact, on a beach in Svalbard, nearly 100% of the mass of plastic washed ashore came from fishing, according to the study.

The work also compared plastic concentrations in the Arctic with those found in other regions, such as the deep Lisbon Canyon and the seabed off Barcelona. “These had similar levels of marine debris to what we recorded on the seafloor at our observatory west of Svalbard at around 2,500 meters depth.emphasizes Bergmann.

Regarding the levels of microplastics that were recorded in the deep sea sediments in this observatory, these were much higher (up to 13,000 microplastics per kg of sediment) compared to those recorded with the same methodology in the sea of ​​the North, closer to fountains and industries.

The research results show that although the Arctic is sparsely populated, almost all habitats have similar levels of plastic pollution as densely populated regions of the world.

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A gloomy panorama between ice, water and snow

The research team, in which scientists from Canada, Norway and the Netherlands worked, warns that the consequences are serious. Currently, virtually all marine organisms studied in all seas on the planet – from plankton to sperm whales – come into contact with plastic and microplastic waste.

Unfortunately, there are very few studies on the effects of plastic on Arctic marine organisms.“, explains Bergmann, “although there is evidence that the consequences are similar to those in better-studied regions. Also in the Arctic, many animals – polar bears, seals, reindeer and seabirds – become entangled in plastic and die. Unintentionally ingested microplastics likely cause reduced growth and reproduction, physiological stress, and tissue inflammation in marine animals”.

These impacts add to existing threats to these vulnerable ecosystems, which are experiencing a temperature increase three times faster than the rest of the planet. “If a If the body mistakes plastic for food and cannot get energy from it, it becomes weaker. If this persists, it will grow more slowly, produce fewer offspring, and be more susceptible to disease.“, emphasizes the expert.

Additionally, the researchers warn of possible feedback effects between plastic waste and climate change. “In this sense, it is urgent to continue the investigation“, he underlines. “Research on this is still in its infancy, but early indications suggest that if plastic particles darker than sea ice and snow are prevalent in significant numbers, it could affect the reflective properties of ice, such as this has been shown for carbon black, for example.“, details Bergmann. As a result, sea ice absorbs more sunlight and therefore melts faster.

In turn, due to what is known as ice-albedo feedback, this can intensify global warming. Plastic particles in the atmosphere provide condensation nuclei for clouds and rain, meaning they could influence weather patterns and, in the long run, climate. In addition, over their life cycle, plastics are currently responsible for 4.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

This system now cries out to reduce plastic production and limit plastic pollution quickly and effectively. Plastic already in the environment will break down into smaller and smaller particles, increasing levels of plastic pollution, even if we stop pollution todayconcludes the researcher.


Melanie Bergmann, et al. “Plastic Pollution in the Arctic”. Nature reviews Earth and environment (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s43017-022-00279-8


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