The ice in the Arctic Ocean could potentially have trillions of tiny pieces of plastic and various forms of synthetic trash within its frozen walls. As the polar cap melts, researchers say, that the particles are being released back into the oceans of the world. The potential harm to marine life is as yet unknown. If the hundreds of images available, that show decomposed marine bird carcasses with piles of plastic items where their stomachs were, are any indication, this could be a monumental problem.
The pollutants, referred to as microplastics, are primarily from debris that has been broken up. Fibers released when washing clothes and cosmetics are also part of the pollution. The study with these findings, published in Earth’s Future was also reported on by Science.
The authors of the study, including, a Dartmouth College materials scientist, Rachel Obbard, estimate that at the current rate of melting, over one trillion particles that are five millimeters or even smaller could end up in the oceans over the next ten years. To put that into perspective, if the plastic debris were to be concentrated into one mass, it would be 1,000 times bigger than the floating garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean.
Also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, it was discovered by Charles Moore, a yacht racing captain. He and his crew were sailing between Hawaii and California, crossing what is known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a high-pressure area. It was there that they discovered that their ship was encircled by millions of pieces of microplastic.
Obbard and her colleagues’ findings are based on four core samples that the researchers took of the ice while on expeditions in 2005 and again in 2010. Rayon made up 54 percent of the synthetic matter discovered. The researchers explained that even though rayon is made from wood and not technically a plastic, it is manmade and a semi-synthetic. Rayon is used in clothing, filters for cigarettes and personal hygiene products.
At 21 percent, polyester was the next most common synthetic found. Nylon was 16 percent of the pollutants, polypropylene was three percent and acrylic, polyethylene and polystyrene all made up two percent of the pollutants found in the ice. The authors said that the icy trap represents a “a major historic global sink of man-made particulates.”
Their findings have shed light on the puzzling aspect of science’s understanding regarding the sheer quantities of debris that is plastic in the oceans. Science magazine reported that, according to an industry association, Plastics Europe, in 2012, 288 million tons of plastic was produced.
Microplastic debris has been found off the coast of southern Chile, as well. The authors suggest that it is time to investigate Antarctica too. Even though there are different variables at play in the south polar region, it would be wise to take a sample of ice from Antarctica to check if it also contains microplastics.
In a very real sense, plastic has taken over the world. Look around and its presence is notable. Though shocking, the report should not be surprising. The fact that the Arctic ice is melting is alarming enough without the news that it holds trillions of pieces of plastic, a shameful legacy.
By Stacy Lamy