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Microplastics discovered in the most remote Arctic regions

Vacationers turned citizen scientists have assisted a team of researchers in uncovering the threat of microplastics on the pristine beaches of the Arctic. 

As the world grapples with the increasing scale of plastic production, tiny fragments of these synthetic materials, known as microplastics, have become ubiquitous, sparking fears of accumulation and consequent ecosystem damage in the Arctic due to ocean currents. 

Still yet, our understanding of the extent and nature of this potential Arctic plastic pollution remains sketchy.

Dr. Bruno Walther of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research is the lead author of the new study, which is published in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science.

“Plastic pollution is now ubiquitous. It is found on land and in soil and most rivers of the world,” stated Dr. Walther. His stark observation highlights the reality that even the remotest of regions, including the polar oceans and the deepest ocean trenches, are not spared from the insidious infiltration of plastic.

Growing threat of microplastics

The focus of the research, the Svalbard archipelago, is Europe’s farthest northern landmass. This picturesque yet remote area faces the growing threat of microplastics carried over by ocean currents. 

To explore this issue, four tourist cruises visiting Svalbard in 2016, 2017, 2021, and 2022 engaged in collecting sediment samples. Alongside, all cruises, with the exception of the 2022 trip, surveyed macroplastic debris for a different study. 

Initially, participants gathered single samples from beaches utilizing basic metal tools and dispatched them to the scientists along with corresponding metadata and photographs documenting the sampling locations. Later, this process was extended to cover entire beaches using sampling grids.

“Citizen science is possible even in remote Arctic beaches,” said Dr. Walther. In his view, harnessing the power of tourists not only helps scientists reduce travel time, cut down on CO2 emissions, and save costs, but also engages ordinary individuals in tackling a pressing global environmental issue.

Finding microplastics in the Arctic

Following collection, the samples were desiccated, weighed, and measured. They were then filtered to capture particles of 1mm or larger – a demarcation based on the premise that larger particles are less likely to become airborne. 

To test this assumption, scientists kept a bowl of purified water by their workstation, filtering it for microplastics once their analysis was concluded. The results were reassuring; no microplastics had drifted from the laboratory air into the water. 

To further safeguard against plastic contamination, the team employed an air purifier, wore cotton lab coats, refrained from synthetic clothing, and shielded samples with aluminum lids. Identified plastic particles underwent microscopic examination and spectroscopic analysis.

Alarming results

The findings were alarming. Microplastics of the size targeted were not diffused but highly concentrated, resulting in an overall level of plastic pollution comparable to regions previously deemed much more polluted than Arctic beaches. 

Two specific sources of plastic pollution were pinpointed: polypropylene fibers possibly from a fishing net, and polyester-epoxide particles likely derived from a ship’s color coating or equipment.

“Plastic debris from fisheries is the most direct point of entry to the marine realm, and is often particularly important in remote areas,” noted study co-author Dr. Melanie Bergmann of the Alfred Wegener Institute. 

The waters around Svalbard host an active fishing fleet, but there are also fleets in the North Sea and the North Atlantic. Some of the waste that they emit eventually finds its way to the beaches of Svalbard.

Expedited fragmentation of particles

The fishing net fragments appeared to have disintegrated rapidly due to the unique beach conditions: repeated freezing cycles, high humidity from fog, and nearly non-stop sunlight during the summer months. 

If this expedited fragmentation is a common phenomenon, it could result in the quick introduction of tiny, elusive microplastics into the environment.

While these findings are significant, Dr. Walther stressed that more comprehensive and consistent sampling in the Arctic is necessary to fully understand the situation. 

“It should be noted that we only analyzed microplastics particles larger than 1mm,” noted Bergmann. “This was because of the citizen science approach and to avoid potential airborne contamination by small particles.”

“But our previous studies on Arctic water, ice, and sediment samples have shown that more than 80% of the particles were much smaller. So, we probably would have found more particles, if we had looked for smaller particles, too.”

Indeed, the Arctic, with its remote and fragile ecosystems, may already be bearing the brunt of a problem born from human activities. This research highlights the urgent need for immediate action. It also underscores the potential value of citizen science in global conservation efforts.

More about microplastics

Microplastics refer to minute plastic particles, typically less than five millimeters in diameter. They represent a major category of plastic pollution. In today’s world, microplastics are present ubiquitously in a variety of environments ranging from terrestrial to marine ecosystems.


Microplastics primarily originate from two sources. Primary microplastics are purposely manufactured at a small scale for uses in personal care products, industrial abrasives, and medical applications. These include microbeads in exfoliating body washes and facial scrubs, and pellets used for plastic manufacturing.

Secondary microplastics, on the other hand, result from the degradation of larger plastic objects. These include plastic bags and bottles, due to environmental processes like photodegradation and mechanical erosion.

Environmental impact

Microplastics infiltrate natural habitats and ecosystems around the world, including the most remote regions of the Arctic, causing adverse effects. Their small size and high surface-area-to-volume ratio make them capable of absorbing persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These include PCBs and DDT.

Upon entering the food chain, these contaminants can magnify, causing potential harm to wildlife and humans.

In the marine environment, microplastics are often mistaken for food by marine organisms, from zooplankton to whales. Ingestion can lead to physical harm, nutrient displacement, reduced energy, and potentially death.

Microplastics also act as vectors for invasive species and pathogens. They accomplish this by facilitating their spread across different ecosystems.

Human health concerns

Microplastics present potential human health risks, both directly and indirectly. They can enter the human body in several ways. First, through the ingestion of contaminated food and water. Next, by inhalation of airborne microplastics. Finally, through direct contact with the skin.

Once in the body, microplastics might cause physical harm, generate an immune response, or release absorbed pollutants. Research is ongoing to further understand these potential impacts.

Mitigation and prevention

Mitigation of microplastics 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, including recycling and proper disposal, also helps to reduce the production of secondary microplastics.

Prevention strategies aim at reducing the use and production of plastic products. This includes bans on microbeads in personal care products, use of 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 microplastics pollution. Standardized methods for sampling, processing, and analyzing microplastics are needed to compare data globally.

Research areas include exploring new detection and quantification methods, identifying major sources and pathways, and studying the impacts on wildlife and human health.

In summary, microplastics represent a pervasive and complex form of pollution. Despite the challenges, concerted efforts in research, innovation, policy-making, and public awareness are key to tackling this global issue.


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