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Plastic Pollution is Threatening the Arctic

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© NOAA

Last week, a new study published in in the journal Science Advances found that the Arctic Ocean is accumulating high concentrations of plastics―specifically in the Greenland and Barents seas. I wanted to share with you why this study is so alarming, what it means for the health of the ocean and how you can help. Here are five things you need to know from the new study. 

The trash traveled a long way

The accumulation of plastic in the Arctic region is almost certainly not caused by local populations. Instead, it’s carried in from distant regions by currents in the Atlantic Ocean—a sort of “plastic conveyor belt,” as the researchers put it—which culminates in Arctic waters.  Researchers found that the Arctic plastic was tiny, weathered and aged, indicating that it had been traveling the seas for decades, fragmenting into smaller and smaller pieces along the way. The study didn’t document much plastic in the Arctic Ocean beyond the Greenland and Barents seas, again suggesting that currents—or the ‘conveyer belt’—carried the debris to Arctic waters.

The Arctic is worth protecting

The Arctic is home to animals found nowhere else on Earth. Where else can you find the longest living vertebrate on the planet (the 400-year old Greenland shark), the unicorn of the sea (the narwhal), and the colorful Spectacled Eider? Polar bears prowl the ice looking for ringed seals. Pacific walruses, too, call the Arctic home. They dive from ice floes and use their sensitive whiskers to locate mollusks on the ocean floor.

Trash in the Arctic is unique

Plastic pollution is not the only threat to imperil the Arctic. Today the Arctic faces unparalleled challenges from oil and gas development, increasing vessel traffic and other industrial activity— not to mention increasing water temperatures, decreasing sea ice and other climate change effects. All these impacts jeopardize the integrity of the Arctic marine ecosystem. Adding ocean plastics to this list of pressures is simply not acceptable.

Arctic summer sea ice is shrinking to ever-lower levels, and more and more vessels are venturing into the open water. As vessel traffic in the region grows, so too does the threat posed by both intentional and incidental discharge of trash and other waste into Arctic waters. Therefore, it’s critical that we put in place strong environmental protection measures for the Arctic now. 

Ocean pollution is a BIG problem

Scientists have recorded nearly 700 species of marine wildlife that have been affected by marine debris. With an estimated eight million metric tons of plastic waste entering the ocean every year from land, marine species will be living in an ocean that could contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish by 2025!

And there’s much more to the problem than floating bags, bottles and fishing nets. As many as 51 trillion pieces of microplastic (plastic pieces less than five mm) now circulate in the ocean. These tiny fragments are harming marine life—that  not only ingest microplastics, but also take them in through their gills.

There may be no practical way to clean up ocean plastic on a large scale, especially microplastics in remote, turbulent places like the Arctic. But thanks to research like that published by Cozar et al. (2017), we’re continuing to understand the transport and fate of ocean plastics The next step is translating that into better waste reduction and management practices on land.

People are a BIG part of the solution

The Arctic research points to people as the source of the problem. Fortunately, people are also the solution.

Over the course of the 32-year history of the International Coastal Cleanup, volunteers have removed more than 220 million items from beaches and waterways around the world. One memorable story comes from Colleen Rankin—a marine debris cleanup veteran. She lives in Blue Fox Bay, Alaska. Colleen regularly hauls debris off remote beaches miles away back to her home, where she re-uses whatever she can and stores the rest for eventual disposal. Colleen says, “even here on the coast of Alaska, I’m surrounded every day by reminders of people from faraway places. That’s because the beaches near my home are literally covered in plastic, trash and netting.”

Currently, there is a bi-partisan bill in Congress that will further support the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s research to better understand the impacts of this marine pollution and identify solutions to stop the flow of plastic waste into our ocean and onto remote shores like Blue Fox Bay.

You can join in by taking action and telling your Senators to support this important piece of legislation.

And whether you’re on the shores of Blue Fox Bay or the river in Brooklyn, you can join in local cleanup efforts—joining the thousands of International Coastal Cleanup® volunteers who are working for a cleaner ocean by picking up the millions of pounds of trash that wash onto beaches and into waterways around the world.

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