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On a Hunt for Microplastics in the Canadian Arctic

Arctic-Chelsea
© Dr. Chelsea Rochman

The following is a guest blog from Dr. Chelsea Rochman, who is currently an Assistant Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto.

Lately, there has been a lot of news about marine debris, specifically plastic, being discovered in remote corners of the Earth. Plastics have been found near the North Pole, among other remote locations in the Arctic and in Antarctica.

I am leading a research team that’s working to investigate microplastics in the Arctic Ocean, specifically in the Eastern Canadian Arctic and Hudson Bay. We have received reports of tiny fibers and fragments in sea ice and surface water—around Greenland and Norway.

Canada-Chelsea

In order to conduct our research, earlier this summer, our research team hopped aboard the CCGS Amundsen, an icebreaker and Arctic research vessel operated by the Canadian Coast Guard. To give you some context—this very (popular) ship can be found on the Canadian $50 bill!!

My voyage began on July 7th, 2017 from Kuujjuarapik, an Inuit community of less than 800 people on the coast of Hudson Bay. With no place to dock the ship, we were brought on board by helicopter. Our cruise-track hugs the coast of the eastern side of Hudson Bay, carries on north and eastward into Hudson Straight and ends in Frobisher Bay at Iqaluit—the capital of Nunavut. I hop off there, but others from our team hop on and continue sampling through the Northern Canadian Territory of Nunavut.

Our goal: to quantify microplastics in samples of surface water, snow, sediments and zooplankton. We hope these samples will tell us something about the quantity and types of microplastics in this region, and where they originated.

Arctic-Map

My time on the ship was amazing, but hard work. We lost one day due to weather, and the first day was absolute madness setting up labs to sample our first station (a.k.a. sampling site) within just a few short hours. During our seven days at sea, we sampled at ten stations in total, working day and night. Still, no matter the time, nighttime never fully came—the sun hardly sets here.

Arctic3
© Dr. Chelsea Rochman

At each station, I worked non-stop for several hours, sampling and filtering water, sampling sediments and sampling zooplankton. During filtering, I always popped outside the lab now and again to look at birds, sea ice and at the blue (or grey) sky! It’s truly beautiful.

Much too soon, my week was over and we exchanged science crews. I was lifted by helicopter off the ship and placed in Iqaluit—a village of just under 8,000 people. There, I found my hotel and took a walk around. The bay was beautiful, but not free of plastic litter. A storm drain near the beach brings litter to the bay. From a local guide, I am told there is waste collection and a local landfill, but the infrastructure is poorly developed and there is no plastic recycling. As a result, litter has no value in this region—a place where progress can be made.

Arctic-Trash-Chelsea
© Dr. Chelsea Rochman

The next day, after a quick tour of Iqaluit, I walked to the airport to head home to Toronto. For me, this was not my first research cruise and I noticed a difference between this cruise and others. That difference: plastic pollution. Across the North Pacific and South Atlantic, I witnessed so much plastic pollution—large bits and pieces bobbing here and there. In the Canadian Arctic, where the population is very small, I saw very few large pieces in the water.

During my week collecting water samples, I’m hopeful that we gathered enough evidence to start piecing together a clear picture of what is going on in the ocean. How does the plastic travel to remote corners of the Earth, where did the microplastic originate and how can we put in place measures to keep plastics out of our seas! These are the questions I keep thinking of as I anxiously await for our samples to come back with the ship so we can analyze them. Stay tuned!

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