Tiny plastic particles, so called microplastics, from personal-care products and plastic waste, are accumulating in marine waters and big lakes around the world. They haven now also been showing up in Arctic waters south and southwest of Svalbard, Norway, raising concerns that they are entering the Arctic food web.

Microplastics accumulate in Arctic waters. They can be ingested by fish and other marine animals and get into the Arctic food web. (Photo: Katja Riedel)
Microplastics accumulate in Arctic waters. They can be ingested by fish and other marine animals and get into the Arctic food web. (Photo: Katja Riedel)

Microplastic are tiny plastic particles that are either manufacture intentionally to add to cosmetics or that are fragments derived from the breakdown of larger plastic debris. Water samples taken during a research cruise in the Arctic in June 2014 showed that microplastics are ubiquitous in a region south and southwest of Svalbard, an archipelago north of Norway. Nearly all of the water samples wound up containing microplastics, the researchers found. That was the case for water samples that were taken at the surface and for those taken, with the use of pumps, six meters below the surface, though the deeper waters held a much higher concentration of microplastics, the study by scientists from Ireland and Italy found. The study, published in the open-access journal Nature Scientific Reports, is the first documentation of microplastics in those waters, raising concerns that the tiny pieces of plastic litter are entering the Arctic food web.

Microplastic sperules in tooth paste, about 30 µm in diameter.
Microplastic sperules in tooth paste, about 30 µm in diameter.

Ninety-five percent of the measured microplastics were fibers, suggesting they were broken-down pieces of larger plastic items from aboard ships or used for fishing, recreation or industrial activities, that subsequently travelled very long distances to the waters off Svalbard, the study says -- though local sources, such as regional sewage disposal, could also be contributing to the load.

Lead scientist Amy Lusher of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and collaborating scientist Valentina Tirelli of the National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics in Italy, said they were surprised by the findings. "We had originally assumed the Arctic may be an unpolluted area, however, as you can see, this is not the case."

The microplastic bits they found averaged 1.9 millimeters and were difficult to see without a microscope, they said. While some microplastics are pieces of larger items, others are flushed into water bodies through the use of personal-care and household products. Many of those products, such as facial scrubs and toothpastes, contain small plastic beads used by manufacturers for their exfoliating or scrubbing qualities. Also fibres from synthetic clothing, like nylon and acrylics, can get into the environment though waste-water from washing machines.

With Arctic sea ice diminishing and Arctic marine traffic increasing, more work is needed to understand how much of this plastic litter is coming to northern waters and how it might be ingested by fish and other marine life, the new study says. “Considering the potential implications of microplastics, there is an urgent need to assess the levels in the Arctic,” it says.

Microplastic fibers identified in the marine environment. (Photo: M. Danny, Wikipedia)
Microplastic fibers identified in the marine environment. (Photo: M. Danny, Wikipedia)

While this was the first measurement of microplastics in waters off Svalbard, other studies have found such plastic litter in far-flung sites. A Dartmouth scientist examining tiny marine organisms dwelling in sea ice in the central Arctic Ocean was surprised to find numerous types of bright-coloured plastic bits also embedded in the ice. Dartmouth’s Rachel Obbard described her findings in a study published last year in the journal Earth’s Future. Microplastics have been found in areas ranging from the Great Lakes to Arctic marine waters off Canada to the Baltic Sea.

 

Source: Yereth Rosen, Arctic NewsWire