Tourists turned citizen scientists have helped a team of researchers uncover the threat of microplastics on the Arctic’s most beautiful beaches.
As the world grapples with increasing levels of plastic production, tiny fragments of these synthetic materials, known as microplastics, have become ubiquitous, raising fears that ocean currents could end up in the Arctic and damage ecosystems as a result.
Yet, our understanding of the extent and nature of this potential Arctic plastic pollution is unclear.
Dr. Alfred Wegener Institute. Bruno Walther, from the Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research, is the lead author of the new study, published in the Journal of Polar and Marine Research. Frontiers in Environmental Science.
“Plastic pollution is now ubiquitous. “It is found on land and soil and in most rivers of the world,” said Dr. Walther said. His stark observation highlights the reality that even remote areas, including the polar oceans and deep ocean trenches, are not immune to the mysterious intrusion of plastic.
The growing threat of microplastics
The focus of the research, the Svalbard archipelago, is Europe’s farthest northern landmass. This beautiful yet remote area faces the growing threat of microplastics carried by ocean currents.
To explore this issue, four tourist cruises visiting Svalbard in 2016, 2017, 2021 and 2022 were involved in collecting sediment samples. Additionally, all cruises except the 2022 voyage surveyed macroplastic debris for another study.
Initially, participants collected single samples from beaches using basic metal tools and sent them to scientists along with associated metadata and photographs documenting sample locations. Later, the process was expanded to cover entire beaches using sampling grids.
“Citizen science is possible even on remote Arctic beaches,” Dr. Walther said. In his view, harnessing the power of tourists not only helps scientists reduce travel time, reduce CO2 emissions, and save costs, but also involves ordinary individuals in tackling the global environmental problem.
Microplastics are being found in the Arctic
Following collection, samples were dried, weighed, and measured. They were filtered to capture particles 1 mm or larger — a demarcation based on the conclusion that larger particles are less likely to become airborne.
To test this hypothesis, the scientists kept a bowl of purified water at their workstation and filtered it for microplastics once the analysis was complete. The results were reassuring; No microplastics were leached from the laboratory air into the water.
To further protect against plastic pollution, the team used an air purifier, wore cotton lab coats, avoided synthetic clothing, and protected samples with aluminum lids. The identified plastic particles were subjected to microscopic and spectroscopic analysis.
The findings were alarming. Microplastics of the targeted size were not dispersed but in high concentrations, resulting in overall plastic pollution comparable to areas previously considered more polluted than arctic beaches.
Two specific sources of plastic pollution were identified: polypropylene fibers from fishing nets and polyester-epoxide particles derived from ship’s color coating or equipment.
“Plastic debris from fishing is the most direct entry point into the ocean, and this is especially important in remote areas,” study co-author Dr. Commented by Melanie Bergman.
There is an active fishing fleet in the waters around Svalbard, but there are also fleets in the North Sea and North Atlantic. Some of the waste they emit eventually ends up on Svalbard’s beaches.
Rapid fragmentation of particles
The fishing net fragments appeared to disintegrate rapidly due to the unique beach conditions: repeated freezing cycles, high humidity from fog, and almost non-stop sunlight during summer.
If this accelerated degradation were a normal phenomenon, it would result in the rapid introduction of small, elusive microplastics into the environment.
While these findings are significant, Dr. Walther emphasized.
“It’s important to note that we only analyzed microplastic particles larger than 1 millimeter in size,” Bergman noted. “It’s a citizen science approach and avoids airborne pollution by small particles.”
“But our previous studies of Arctic water, ice and sediment samples showed that 80% of the particles were very small. Therefore, if we had looked for smaller particles we would have found more particles.
Indeed, the Arctic, with its remote and fragile ecosystems, may already be bearing the brunt of a problem born of human activity. This research highlights the urgent need for urgent action. It also underscores the potential value of citizen science in global conservation efforts.
More about microplastics
Microplastics are small plastic particles usually less than five millimeters in diameter. They represent an important category of plastic pollution. In today’s world, microplastics are ubiquitous in a variety of environments, from terrestrial to marine ecosystems.
Microplastics originate mainly from two sources. Primary microplastics are produced on a small scale for use in personal care products, industrial abrasives, and medical applications. These include microbeads that are exfoliated in body washes and facial scrubs, and pellets that are used to make plastics.
Secondary microplastics, on the other hand, are the result of the degradation of larger plastic materials. This includes plastic bags and bottles due to environmental processes such as photodegradation and mechanical erosion.
Microplastics are infiltrating natural habitats and ecosystems around the world, including the most remote regions of the Arctic, and causing negative impacts. Their small size and high surface-area-to-volume ratio enable them to adsorb persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These include PCBs and DDT.
When entering the food chain, these pollutants can multiply, causing harm to wildlife and humans.
In the marine environment, marine life ranging from zooplankton to whales are often mistaken for microplastic food. Ingestion can cause physical harm, nutrient displacement, energy depletion, and death.
Microplastics also act as vectors for invasive species and pathogens. They accomplish this by facilitating their dispersal across different ecosystems.
Human health concerns
Microplastics present direct and indirect human health risks. They can enter the human body in many ways. First, by consuming contaminated food and water. Next, by inhaling airborne microplastics. Finally, through direct contact with the skin.
Once inside the body, microplastics can cause physical harm, trigger an immune response, or release absorbed pollutants. Research is ongoing to further understand these potential impacts.
Mitigation and Prevention
Mitigating microplastic pollution involves several approaches. Wastewater treatment plants play a role in filtering out microplastics. However, not all particles are captured.
This necessitates the development of more effective filtration methods. Plastic waste management, recycling and proper disposal also help to reduce the production of secondary microplastics.
Prevention strategies aim to reduce the use and production of plastic products. These include banning microbeads in personal care products, using alternative materials and promoting a circular economy approach to plastic use.
Research and monitoring
Scientific research and monitoring are essential to understand the extent and effects of microplastic pollution. Standardized methods for sampling, processing and analysis of microplastics are needed to compare data globally.
Research areas include new detection, exploring quantitative methods, identifying key sources and pathways, and studying wildlife and human health impacts.
In short, microplastics represent a widespread and complex form of pollution. Despite the challenges, concerted efforts in research, innovation, policymaking and public awareness are key to tackling this global problem.
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