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Environment: Plastic pollution showing up in the Arctic Sea

Sea water off the east coast of Greenland looked a bit like marbled paper in October 2012. The shifting swirls of white were sea ice, as observed by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite on October 17, 2012. In fact, this ice moved discernibly between October 16 and October 17. Thin, free-drifting ice moves very easily with winds and currents. Click the image for more info from the NASA Earth Observatory.

German study finds litter on the seafloor in the Fram Strait

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Underwater cameras used primarily to track ecological changes on the floor of the Arctic Sea have helped German researchers quantify increases in the amount of plastic waste in the region. In some places, concentrations of garbage are higher than those found in a deep-sea canyon near Lisbon, Portugal.

“The main victims of the increasing contamination of the seafloor are the deep-sea inhabitants,” said Dr. Melanie Bergmann, biologist and deep-sea expert at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association. “Almost 70 percent of the plastic litter that we recorded had come into some kind of contact with deep-sea organisms. For example we found plastic bags entangled in sponges, sea anemones settling on pieces of plastic or rope, cardboard and a beer bottle colonised by sea lilies,” Bergmann said.

The study involved looking at more than 2,000 seafloor photographs taken near HAUSGARTEN, the deep-sea observatory of the Alfred Wegener Institute in the eastern Fram Strait, the sea route between Greenland and the Norwegian island Spitsbergen.

“The study was prompted by a gut feeling. When looking through our images I got the impression that plastic bags and other litter on the seafloor were seen more frequently in photos from 2011 than in those dating back to earlier years.  For this reason I decided to go systematically through all photos from 2002, 2004, 2007, 2008 and 2011,” Bergmann explained.

“Waste can be seen in around one percent of the images from 2002, primarily plastic. In the images from 2011 we made the same discovery on around two percent of the footage.  The quantity of waste on the sea bed has therefore doubled,” she said. “If we consider the time span between 2007 and 2011 the amount has even risen by an order of magnitude.”

At first sight, the “two percent” result may not cause much concern. However a comparison demonstrates the true extent of the pollution in the Arctic deep sea.

“The Arctic Ocean and especially its deep-sea areas have long been considered to be the most remote and secluded regions of our planet. Unfortunately, our results refute this notion at least for our observatory. The quantities observed were higher than those recorded from a deep-sea canyon not far from the industrialized Portuguese capital Lisbon.”

Bergmann said she was unable to determine the origin of litter from photographs alone. However she suspects that the shrinking and thinning of the Arctic sea ice may play an important role.

“The Arctic sea ice cover normally acts as a natural barrier, preventing wind blowing waste from land out onto the sea, and blocking the path of most ships. Ship traffic has increased enormously since the ice cover has been continuously shrinking and getting thinner,” she said. “We are now seeing three times the number of private yachts and up to 36 times more fishing vessels in the waters surrounding Spitsbergen compared to pre-2007 times.”

Litter counts made during annual clean-ups of the beaches of Spitsbergen have shown that the litter washed up there originates primarily from fisheries.

When sponges or other suspension feeders come into contact with plastic, it may cause injuries to the surface of their body, inhibiting their ability to absorb food particles. That means they grow more slowly and, as a result, probably reproduce less often. Breathing could also be impaired.

Plastic also contains chemical additives, which have various toxic effects.

“Other studies have also revealed that plastic bags that sink to the seafloor can alter the gas exchange processes in this area. The sediment below then becomes a low oxygen zone, in which only few organisms survive,” she said. “On the other hand, other animals use the waste as hard substratum to settle on. This allows colonization by species that previously would have found hardly any suitable substratum. This means that the waste could change the deep-sea composition of species and therefore biodiversity in the long-term,” she explained.

In view of the far-reaching climate changes in the Arctic, Bergmann and her colleagues want to expand their litter research. One focus could be on the question of deep-sea pollution resulting from so-called micro-plastic particles.

“We took samples for the first time during the last expedition with our research ice breaker POLARSTERN to the HAUSGARTEN observatory. Our AWI colleagues from Helgoland will analyse them for micro-plastics,” Bergmann said.

Micro-plastics can be ingested by marine animals including commercially harvested prawns and fish and enter the human food chain.

During the expedition, Belgian mammal and bird observers also counted 32 pieces of litter floating at the water surface, leading researchers to believe they’ll probably find more litter in the seafloor.

“Pieces of plastic on the deep seafloor are unlikely to degrade into micro-plastics as quickly as is the case on the North Sea coast, for example. This is due to the lack both of sunlight at a depth below 200 metres and of strong water movement. Instead it is dark and cold there. Under these conditions plastic waste can probably persist for centuries.”

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