Why is the Arctic Polar Region a Plastic Hotspot?

The only time many of us see the Arctic is when it fills our TV screens as a wide panoramic shot giving us a bird’s eye view of the broken jigsaw of icebergs floating on a striking indigo expanse. We believe it when the commentator tells us this is one of Earth’s last great pristine wildernesses. Yet despite the Arctic dodging the constant human action the rest of the world suffers, it is one of our most threatened ecosystems as plastic tightens its grip on our winter wonderland.

Alarming news stories have recently stated that high levels of plastic have been found in Arctic sea ice, with one litre of sea ice near Greenland housing 1,760 particles. As we are slowly working out, plastic dumped in the ocean off the coasts of either North America or Europe are swept up by the Gulf Stream which makes its way northeast across the North Atlantic Ocean. Once the Gulf Stream has Britain on the horizon, it splits into several branches, some taking warm water towards Europe where we enjoy our Mediterranean holidays while another branch sneaks under our radar and travels up into the remote Barents Sea in the Arctic. Plastic is swept north with the current which loses energy and turns rather sluggish in the cold, depositing plastic amongst the ice; a cul-de-sac in which plastic is only accumulating year on year. In winter, the plastic nemeses floating in the water can be frozen into sea ice and encased in this sparkling cabinet for years. In fact, scientists estimate that there are one trillion pieces of plastic trapped in ice, a concentration greater than the waste found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Each spring as the sun warms the ice, some parts melt and, with it, a whole batch of our buried plastic legacy is suddenly released back into the sea, coinciding with the ocean’s equivalent of blossoming spring flowers: the plankton bloom.

Plankton consist of both tiny plants and equally minute animals which form the basis of the food chain, feeding everything from little fish to blue whales. With plastic’s hasty escape from ice in spring, the ever-multiplying plankton become marinated in our toxic soup while the oceans’ predators close in to make the most of a tasty supper. Climate change is accelerating this deposit as by 2050, the Arctic is expected to experience its first ice free summer. Plastic entering the food chain can lead to bioaccumulation which is where large predators such as polar bears consume an enormous number of fish, seals and whale carcasses, the fat in all of which contains the toxic chemicals carried by plastic, leaving these majestic giants with dangerous toxic elements in their body, causing hormone disruption and birth defects. Photographs have even been captured showing a fresh fluffy-faced polar bear cub tugging on a black binbag before chasing it playfully across the snow. These images break our hearts but there are things we can do to help. Cutting your plastic use any way possible can stop the chance of any more bio-persistent waste entering our beautiful oceans, whether that be abandoning plastic fruit bags or the takeaway coffee cup. Raising awareness of the plastic issue simply by creating a conversation on social media can also get people to really think about their actions which have become so second nature in our consumer-driven society.

Yet floating is not the only transport medium plastic is using to make its way to the Arctic where it bathes under natural wonders such as the Northern Lights. Pollen and dusty particles of sand have long been known to blow vast distances across our planet via the wind but microplastics are the new intruder to our airwaves. Once tiny microplastics, some one-sixth of the width of a human hair, have been blown into polar regions, snow particles latch on and cause plastic to literally fall from the sky. The most common microplastic was found to be part of the protective coating which is placed on vehicles and ships but the other common types were rubber and synthetic fibres such as nylon. This is something that we can actually make a difference to, even if we are sitting halfway round the world. Each tumble of the washing machine sends hundreds of thousands of tiny synthetic fibres out into the air which can easily be reduced by placing your clothes in a Guppyfriend bag or by using a Coraball (see our Ocean Friendly Fashion blog for more information).

Yet not all pollution is dumped here by the strength of the wind and currents. Local pollution in the area is increasing as the Northwest Passage, previously almost impossible to navigate, is opening up due to the effects of global warming. This passage is expected to be increasingly used by cargo ships travelling between Europe and the growing superpowers in Asia as it provides a handy shortcut compared to the traditional Panama Canal. The Arctic is also the source of 10% of the world’s fish, meaning that lost nets, ropes and lines are some of the most prevalent items found drifting amongst the whales and walruses. With the seas heating up and fish moving poleward towards cooler waters, the seafaring traffic in this region is only set to increase. The mass melt which is now occurring means that scientists are only now reaching some of the most remote parts of the Arctic but unsurprisingly, plastic has beat them to it. Some even believe that there is enough plastic in our environment to form a new layer in Earth’s fossil record. It is therefore essential that we secure both proper protection for wildlife and an alternative to plastic before this begins. Trackers are already being placed on some items of fishing gear so any lost nets, some of which stretch over kilometres, can be picked up by passing vessels to avoid trapping any unintended catch. Yet more needs to be done, and by using both our consumer powers to boycott plastic goods and our voices to protest, we can, hopefully, see change. If protesting isn’t your cup of tea, there are always organisers, letter writers and creative individuals needed to help environmental campaigns. While some may see the Arctic as devoid of life, the mythical sounding narwhale resides in this large expanse which is  also essential to support great hunters such as polar bears while the Arctic tern completes its phenomenal migration from the Arctic to the Antarctic each year, but relies on the Arctic as a place to breed. Making small actions at home may be the tip of the iceberg but it may be the tip which turns us back away from irreversible damage.

 By Neve McCracken-Heywood

Rory Sinclair