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Concerning amount of plastic has reached the Arctic

A new study led by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) has found that even the Arctic cannot escape the global threat of plastic pollution. According to the researchers, a flood of plastic has reached all parts of the Arctic, endangering a large variety of ecosystems, and further exacerbating climate change.

Recent estimates show that between 19 and 23 million metric tons of plastic litter end up in the waters of the world each year – the equivalent of two truckloads per minute. Since plastic is very stable, it gradually accumulates in the oceans, breaking down into smaller pieces – from macro- to micro- to nano-plastics that can even enter the human bloodstream. Virtually all marine organisms investigated today, from plankton to sperm whales, come into contact regularly with plastic debris and microplastics. Now, the scientists sadly discovered that not even the Arctic is spared.

“The Arctic is still assumed to be a largely untouched wilderness,” said study lead author Dr. Melanie Bergmann, a biologist at AWI. “In our review, which we jointly conducted with colleagues from Norway, Canada, and the Netherlands, we show that this perception no longer reflects the reality. Our northernmost ecosystems are already particularly hard hit by climate change. This is now exacerbated by plastic pollution. And our own research has shown that the pollution continues to worsen.”

Although the Arctic is sparsely populated, Dr. Bergmann and her colleagues have found similar levels of plastic pollution there as in more densely populated parts of the world. This pollution stems from both local and distant sources, including ocean currents, Siberian rivers, winds, municipal waste and wastewater from Arctic communities, and debris left behind by ships. This massive amount of plastic is significantly affecting a whole range of polar ecosystems.

“Unfortunately, there are very few studies on the effects of the plastic on marine organisms in the Arctic,” Dr. Bergmann explained. “But there is evidence that the consequences there are similar to those in better-studied regions: in the Arctic, too, many animals – polar bears, seals, reindeer, and seabirds – become entangled in plastic and die. In the Arctic, too, unintentionally ingested microplastic likely leads to reduced growth and reproduction, to physiological stress and inflammations in the tissues of marine animals, and even runs in the blood of humans.”

Since the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the world as climate change progresses, this plastic flood is hitting already strained ecosystems. According to the scientists, a global treaty aiming to mitigate plastic pollution is urgently needed, together with firm commitments from nations worldwide to reduce the amount of plastic they use and discard.

The study is published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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