A recent expedition to the Arctic has brought about a disturbing discovery in the Arctic Ocean. The British-led expedition found chunks of plastic and polystyrene on ice floes in the ocean.
Even more disturbing is that the area in which the plastic was found was previously inaccessible due to sea ice – meaning that the ice has since melted. The waste was found only 1,000 miles from the North Pole, which is the furthest north that any plastic has been discovered.
The research team was a part of Pen Hadow’s Arctic exploratory mission to sail to the North Pole for the purpose of collecting important data during the trip. Hadow is the only individual to have made this solo mission from Canada to the North Pole without resupply.
The team did not know to expect plastic waste given that ice usually covers the area year round. In fact, Harlow told The Guardian, “For the 25 years I have been exploring the Arctic I have never seen such large and very visible items of rubbish.
The blocks of polystyrene were just sitting on top of the ice. They found a piece of plastic on an ice floe in the middle of international waters in the central Arctic Ocean – an area that’s never before been accessed without icebreakers.
Marine Biologist Tim Gordon of Exeter University said, “Finding pieces of rubbish like this is a worrying sign that melting ice may be allowing high levels of pollution to drift into these areas,” one of the researchers that was on the expedition added, “This is potentially very dangerous for the Arctic’s wildlife.”
Rivers collect and distribute plastic pollution, much of which end up in the Arctic. Previously, plastic waste that would flow into the Arctic would get trapped in the ice. Though it isn’t ideal, the threat of the waste being pulled further out to sea was less likely. However, now that the ice is melting at a rapid rate, the threat of pollution is much more urgent.
Given the projections that the Arctic will be ice-free by Summer of 2040, the pollutants will soon be widespread. An ice-free Arctic will surely make it more possible for more human exploration, but exploitation in many forms will also likely occur.
For instance, researchers are concerned about the previously untouched area for both flora and fauna. Gordon states, “The Arctic Ocean’s wildlife used to be protected by a layer of sea ice all year round”.
He affirms, “Now that is melting away, this environment will be exposed to commercial fishing, shipping, and industry for the first time in history. We need to seriously consider how best to protect the Arctic’s animals from these new threats.”