Plastic pollution has reached the Antarctic, a new study shows. Scientists from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) revealed that food wrapping, fishing gear, and plastic waste continue to reach the region. Some of these have been ingested by seabirds and other marine species. The team also highlights the ongoing prevalence of plastic in the Polar Regions as they have collected marine debris washed up on the beaches of Bird Island (South Georgia) and Signy Island (South Orkneys) over three decades.
The findings of the study published in the journal Environment International showed an increase in the amount of debris collected. The researchers recovered over 10,000 items, the majority of these were plastics. "It's not all bad news. With the amount of plastic recovered on beaches peaking in the 1990s, our study suggests that the measures to restrict the amount of debris entering the Southern Ocean have been successful, at least in part,” they said.
Lead author Dr. Claire Waluda, a marine ecologist at BAS, also reported increasing numbers of smaller pieces of plastics. According to her, these might be due to the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic that have been in the Southern Ocean for a long time.
Microplastics in the Antarctic
In 2009, a team of Tasmanian researchers took an ice core from the eastern side of Antarctic to study. According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, the core was collected to better understand the Antarctic. Anna Kelly, the lead researcher of the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS), said that ice core was recently melted down and its contents put under the microscope. They discovered plastic microfibres in it, which is both surprising and alarming because the continent is one of the world’s most remote locations.
"If we've got plastic particles in Antarctica, in one of the most remote habitats on Earth, [then plastics] are extremely widespread and we are having a big impact even in places that most of us will never get to visit," Kelly said.
While microplastics have previously been found in sea ice in the northern hemisphere and sea surface water samples in Antarctica, the researchers said that this is the first time microplastics have been identified in an ice core from the Antarctic. According to EcoWatch, a leading environmental news site engaging millions of concerned individuals every month, the team discovered a total of 96 microplastic particles from 14 different types of polymer. They believe that small pieces of plastic may become trapped in ice as ice freezes in the region.
"The remoteness of the Southern Ocean has not been enough to protect it from plastic pollution, which is now pervasive across the world's oceans," Kelly said.
While the source of the microplastics is still unknown, the researchers suggested their size indicates that they are from relatively local sources. This is because the microplastic polymers in the ice core are larger than those in the Arctic, which may indicate local pollution sources. The team explained that the plastic has less time to break down into smaller fibers than if transported long distances on ocean currents. “Local sources could include clothing and equipment used by tourists and researchers, while the fact that we also identified fibers of varnish and plastics commonly used in the fishing industry suggests a maritime source,” Kelly added.
According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, the microplastics were surrounded by algae that had grown in the ice. These findings suggest that they may be eaten by krill, which was considered “a keystone species in Southern Ocean ecosystems” and was vital for marine predators higher up the food chain. Microplastics are more likely to be consumed by small marine organisms like krill who mistake it for food because they are trapped in ice rather than sinking to the deep ocean, allowing the pollutants to "persist for longer near the surface.”
Also, the findings of the study suggest that sea ice could serve as a reservoir for microplastic debris in the Southern Ocean, posing potential biogeochemistry consequences. "It is worth noting that plastic contamination of West Antarctic sea ice may be even greater than in our ice core from the East, as the Antarctic Peninsula hosts the bulk of the continent's tourism, research stations, and marine traffic," Kelly added.
The recent study belongs to growing research about plastic particles becoming common in remote marine habitats. Since researchers started tracing microplastics six years ago, they have found plastic pollution in Antarctic surface waters and sediments as well as in Arctic sea ice. Kelly, who worked with a team of scientists from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and the Australian Antarctic Division, said that around 80% of Antarctic sea ice melts and reforms each year. This has provided opportunities for microplastics on the sea surface to become trapped in the ice.
Microplastics Are Everywhere
In recent years, the presence of microplastics has received a great deal of scientific and media attention. They have been found in oceans, stomachs of different marine species, and raining down from the sky. In 2019, scientists recorded a daily rate of 365 microplastic particles per square meter falling from the sky in the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France. “It was incredible how much microplastic was being deposited,” Deonie Allen, a researcher at EcoLab in the School of Agricultural and Life Sciences in Toulouse, France, said.
In the UK, a 2019 analysis found microplastic pollution in all 10 lakes, rivers, and reservoirs sampled. The researchers found more than 1,000 small pieces of plastic per liter in the River Tame, near Manchester, alone. Lead author Christian Dunn at Bangor University, Wales, said that they weren’t expecting to find that much microplastic. This only shows that microplastics are now everywhere we go.
According to National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, scientists have warned that we are creating a “plastic planet.” In 2015, about 420 million tons of plastics were produced, an increase of over two million tons since 1950. These plastics degrade over time to microplastic particles or much smaller nanoparticles. A study estimated 15 to 51 trillion microplastic particles are floating on the surface of the oceans.