Plastics Have Reached the Final ‘Away’: the Arctic

When you think of the Arctic, you probably think of a pristine area largely untouched by human hands. But even though few people get a chance to see the Arctic firsthand, that’s not stopping our trash from making the journey.

Plastic in the water is the last thing the Arctic needs right now. This past summer, Arctic sea ice melted to its smallest size in the history of satellite measurement. Each year, the amount of Arctic ice (or lack thereof) during summer months stirs up conversations about the health of Arctic ecosystems and potential implications for our global ocean. But Arctic ice is not the only barometer of ecosystem health; instead, we must also take a critical look at what’s below the icy water’s surface.

A recent study published by deep-sea scientists, Dr. Melanie Bergmann and Dr. Michael Kalges from HGF-MPG Group for Deep-Sea Ecology and Technology of the Alfred Wegener Institute, in the scientific journal Marine Pollution Bulletin reveals the sea floor in Arctic deep sea has become increasingly encumbered by ocean trash and plastic pollution. Using photographs of the sea bed taken at a water depth of 2500 meters every 30 seconds, Bergmann and Kalges found the amount of trash, primarily plastics, on the Arctic seafloor has more than doubled in the past decade. Almost 70 percent of the plastic litter researchers encountered had come into contact with deep-sea organisms, including sponges entangled in plastic bags and plastic fragments colonized by sea anemones. The extent of these interactions between deep-sea organisms and plastics are not fully known.

“The Arctic Ocean and especially its deep-sea areas have long been considered to be the most remote and secluded regions of our planet,” notes Bergmann. She goes on to explain that as Arctic sea ice continues to decrease, natural barriers that have typically kept wind-blown trash and ship traffic out of the Arctic will also decrease, yielding a more vulnerable Arctic ecosystem.

For many, the Arctic is a place that induces thoughts of polar bears, seals and glaciers that span for as far as the eye can see; the final frontier. The truth is, we are only beginning to understand the implications of deteriorating marine ecosystems—especially the Arctic—yet we continue to introduce new threats that challenge the resiliency of the ocean. Over the past decade, the majority of attention surrounding ocean trash and plastic pollution has focused largely on the North Pacific Gyre. But plastic pollution is everywhere, and the findings of Bergmann and Kalges on the Arctic seafloor accentuates the fact that ocean trash has infiltrated all reaches of planet Earth, from the middle of the ocean to Mount Everest.

We cannot continue to throw our trash ‘away’ because time and time again we are reminded that there is no away. From Midway Atoll to the middle of the ocean, I have seen ubiquitous presence of plastics. And while debate continues over whether plastics ever truly breakdown in the marine environment, the proliferation of plastics in the Arctic confirms one thing: plastics do not go away.

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