TRANSPOLAR TRASH TRAVELS: Plastic pollution in remote Arctic wilderness areas as bad as urban locations anywhere else on Earth, scientists warn

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Photo of catamaran being pulled by Polarstern icebreaker during plastic pollution survey courtesy of Alfred Wegener Institute

Sparsely populated areas of the Arctic shows a similar level of pollution as dense towns and cities around the globe, according to a new study published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment. This includes virtually all habitats, from beaches through layers of the water column to the seabed, and from pollutants including from fabrics, personal care products, packaging and other everyday materials.

Carried north by waves, winds and rivers, there are high concentrations of these plastic items and microplastic fibers on the seafloor, remote beaches, and even in ice and snow, according to Mark Waghorn writing for the news portal studyfinds.org. The Arctic is the planet’s “air conditioner,” regulating temperatures and circulating ocean currents, but with the area warming three times faster than the rest of the world – and far quicker than that in Svalbard, according to studies – the increasing pollution is a likely accelerant to further climate change.

“The Arctic is still assumed to be a largely untouched wilderness,” Melanie Bergmann, a researcher at Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “In our review, which we jointly conducted with colleagues from Norway, Canada and the Netherlands, we show 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 the pollution continues to worsen.”

On one beach on Svalbard nearly 100 percent of the plastic mass washed ashore came from fisheries.

“Unfortunately, there are very few studies on the effects of the plastic on marine organisms in the Arctic,” Bergmann said. “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.”