Signehamna beach, sampled in 2022 with the 12 sediment samples on the right. Birgit Lutz with permission
Founded in 2005 as an Ohio-based environmental journal, EcoWatch is a digital platform dedicated to publishing quality scientific content about environmental problems, causes and solutions.
Scientists fear ocean currents could cause plastic to build up in the Arctic, damaging ecosystems.
“Plastic pollution is now ubiquitous. It is found on land and in floor and more rivers of the world,” said Dr. Bruno Walther of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research and lead author of the study, as Borders reported. “It is found even in the polar oceans and the deepest ocean trenches.”
To fill gaps in their knowledge of the type and extent of microplastics polluting the Arctic, the researchers asked cruise tourists to collect samples.
The study, “Citizen Scientists Reveal Small but Concentrated Amounts of Fragmented Microplastic on Arctic Beaches,” was published in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science.
In 2016, 2017, 2021 and 2022, four cruise ships carrying tourists visited the Svalbard archipelago – Europe’s northernmost landmass – and collected sediment samples, reported Borders.
At first, metal tools were used to take single samples from the beaches and sent, along with photographs and metadata, to record the sampling locations. This method was later extended to entire beaches with sampling grids.
“Citizen science is possible even on remote Arctic beaches,” Walther said. “This reduces travel time, CO2 emissions and costs to scientists, and it helps engage citizens in a global environmental issue.
After the samples were dried, weighed and measured, they were filtered to catch particles of a millimeter or larger. The scientists hypothesized that the smaller plastic particles do not spread easily through the air, which they tested.
The researchers found that larger microplastics were highly concentrated, but not widespread. However, the overall level of pollution was similar to areas thought to have far more plastic pollution than Arctic beaches.
The team identified two types of sources for the plastic: polyester-epoxy particles, likely from ships’ equipment or color coating, and polypropylene fibers that likely came from a fishing net.
“Plastic debris from fishing is the most direct point of entry into the marine realm and is often particularly important in remote areas,” said author Dr. Melanie Bergmann of the Alfred Wegener Institute, according to Borders. “There is an active fishing fleet operating in the waters around Svalbard but also in the North Sea and the North Atlantic. Some waste that they emit drifts towards the beaches of Svalbard.
The conditions on the Arctic beach – continuous sunshine all summer long, high humidity caused by fog, and repeated freezing cycles – seemed to have caused the net to break up very quickly. If the same type of rapid fragmentation occurs elsewhere, microplastics could be introduced there rapidly as well.
“We still need more sampling in the Arctic, in more places and at more regular time intervals to monitor the situation,” Walther said, as Borders reported.
“It should be noted that we only analyzed microplastic particles larger than 1 mm. This was because of the citizen science approach and to avoid potential contamination of the air with small particles,” Bergmann added. “But our previous studies of water, ice and sediment samples showed that more than 80% of the particles were much smaller. So we probably would have found more particles, if we had searched smaller particlesAlso.”