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Plastic trapped in Arctic sea could flood world's oceans as climate warms

Sarah Knapton
Melt pond on Arctic sea ice in the Arctic Ocean - Stefanie Arndt, Alfred-Wegener-Institut

Arctic sea ice contains a huge amount of microplastics which will be released into the world’s oceans with global warming, researchers has warned.

The Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany surveyed five regions in the Arctic Ocean and found there was 12,000 microplastic particles per litre of ice.

Analysis of ocean currents showed much of the debris had flowed from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world, which is situated between California and Hawaii.

Commenting on the study, British experts said it showed that the garbage patch, was ‘literally the tip of the iceberg.’

Researchers warned that not only is the microplastic dangerous for arctic wildlife, who eat it, but global warming could allow huge amounts to be released back into the world’s oceans.

“During our work, we realised that more than half of the microplastic particles trapped in the ice were less than a twentieth of a millimetre wide, which means they could easily be ingested by arctic microorganisms,” said biologist and first author Dr Ilka Peeken.

“No one can say for certain how harmful these tiny plastic particles are for marine life, or ultimately also for human beings.”

Scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute taking core samples  Credit: M.Fernandez 

The movement of sea ice in the Arctic means much of the waste is eventually transported to waters off the northeast coast of Greenland. And British experts said the deposition of microplastics in the oceans will only get worse as sea ice melts more rapidly because of climate change.

Prof Ton van den Bremer, Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, said: “The study ties together two global environmental problems: plastic pollution of the ocean and climate change, as the melting of the arctic icecap will lead to the release of large additional quantities of micro-plastic.”

Dr Miguel Ángel Morales Maqueda, Senior Lecturer in Oceanography at Newcastle University, added: “The melting of multi-year sea ice exacerbated by climatic change could reasonable lead to the release into the water column of large amounts of plastics stored in the Arctic sea ice cover during the last decades.”

The sea ice melts when it reaches waters off Greenland, dumping vast amounts of microplastic in the water  Credit: Stefanie Arndt 

The researchers found particularly high concentration of polyethylene particles, which are used in packaging and most likely came from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, carried through the Bering Strait in the the Arctic Ocean by the Pacific inflow.

They also discovered paint particles from ship paint, and nylon waste from fishing nets in the Arctic seas off Siberia. Cellulose acetate, which is primarily used in the manufacture of cigarette filters, was also found in high quantities.

 Rod Downie, Head of Polar Programmes at WWF said: “Our addiction to plastic is leaving its mark across the globe - even in some of the most remote and inaccessible places, like the Arctic.

"We need to urgently stem the flow of plastics reaching our oceans before the damage is irreversible. The UK Government needs to show international leadership in this by banning avoidable single use plastic by 2025 otherwise the pollution of the Arctic will worsen.”

The new research was published in the journal Nature Communications.