How Is Plastic Affecting the Arctic?

ice in the Arctic ocean
Ice in the Arctic ocean

A new review article, “Plastic Pollution in the Arctic“, contends that high levels of plastic pollution (including microplastics) have infiltrated the Arctic and intensified climate change’s effects. Plastics from agriculture, hydrocarbon exploration, landfills, illegal dumping, industry, households, fisheries, offshore industry and other such sources are routinely carried to and within the Arctic by atmospheric and aquatic circulation systems. As plastics move through the Arctic, they gradually break down and release greenhouses gases, including methane and ethylene.

Is There Plastic In the Arctic?

Transported plastics from local and distant sources are broadly distributed throughout the Arctic. The United Nations estimates that approximately 150 million tons plastic debris may be scattered across the Arctic. Plastics are found on Arctic shores, in the water column, in sea ice and in the bodies of marine biota.

How Does Plastic Pollution Affect Marine Life?

Arctic wildlife are known to ingest, become entangled in or smothered by plastic debris. “Plastic Pollution in the Arctic” reports that Arctic species such as sculpin (Triglops nybelini), the northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) and belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) have been found with plastic inside them. Plastic ingestion may even affect marine invertebrates like zooplankton in the east Canadian Arctic and the Fram Strait (a sea channel between Greenland and Svalbard). The review further reports that the organismal impacts of plastic infiltration to many endemic species remain largely unknown.

The Fundamental Links Between Climate Change and Marine Plastic Pollution In The Artic

Plastics drive climate change, in return, climate influences distribution of plastics. Also, both climate change and plastics have oil and gas origins. Plastics are derived from greenhouse gases (GHGs) and continue to release GHGs throughout their life cycles as they degrade. Plastics and microplastics are thus expected to increase ocean heat content (OHC). According to “Plastic pollution in the Arctic”, plastics could also promote glacial thawing by affecting their light absorbance, structure and rheological properties.

Circulation systems, including wind, ocean currents and freshwater river flows, continue to move plastics through Arctic ecosystems long after they are originally introduced. Physical impacts associated with climate change effect the concentrations and distribution of plastic in the Arctic. Sea level rise or higher poleward wind speeds from global warming could transport greater levels of plastic debris to Arctic ecosystems.

These interactions suggest that climate change and plastic pollution are mutually reinforcing. The Arctic may be more sensitive to the effects of ocean warming and plastic pollution than most environments because of its permafrost, snow and ice. Climate change strategies aimed at mitigating ocean warming, will have to account for the emissions from plastic sources as well.

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