Scientists have confirmed the worst: Plastic pollution is flowing into the Arctic region, from what may be a sixth “garbage patch” of swirling trash.
According to a study in the journal Polar Biology, researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute and Belgium’s Laboratory for Polar Ecology observed 31 pieces of plastic afloat on the Barents Sea and Fram Strait. The pollution was viewed from a distance—a helicopter and observation point on an icebreaker bridge, so smaller pieces were not visible. “Our numbers are probably an underestimate,” said AWI biologist Melanie Bergmann in a statement.
According to Phys.org, computer models indicate a sixth garbage patch is forming in the Barents Sea. It has been widely reported that there are already five of these patches, or “gyres,” circulating in our world oceans. But these areas harbor trillions of tiny plastic fragments that can only be detected by analyzing net tows. 5 Gyres Institute’s director of research and co-founder Marcus Eriksen famously re-characterized the garbage patches as “plastic smog” because most of the plastic contained in them is not really visible.
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The rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice is probably the cause of the plastic infiltrating the Arctic region, as fishing operations follow cod that is migrating further north. As the ice melts, cruise lines also travel further into the region. Both fishing and cruise lines expel huge amounts of pollution. “Most likely, litter from the ships intentionally or accidentally ends up in the waters of the Arctic,” said Bergmann. “We expect this trend to continue.”
A study published earlier this year in Polar Biology found that seabirds and sharks on Greenland have swallowed plastic litters. The report indicated that 8 percent of the sharks caught off of Greenland had plastic in their stomachs, while 88 percent of northern fulmars have swallowed plastic.