15 April 2013

Litter In The Arctic

Written by Published in Environment
Photo of plastic waste, taken by the OFOS system in the HAUSGARTEN area in July 2012. Photo of plastic waste, taken by the OFOS system in the HAUSGARTEN area in July 2012. ©Alfred Wegener Institute

There are many concerns over the future of the Arctic. From unsafe nuclear waste dumped in the region to the growing potential of oil spills. Many environmentalists have predicted that events, or a single event, will cause mass pollution in the region

A recent study carried out by the Alfred Wenger Institute has shown that a more immediate problem is the growing trend of litter being found on the seabed. Dr. Melaine Bergmann and Michael Klages noticed an increase in the debris they were seeing from shots taken by their research vessels often towing cameras at a depth of 2,500 metres below the surface, or an average of 1.5 metres above the seabed. The study took a total of 2,100 photographs taken over a ten year period from 2001 – 2011 and has shown a double-fold increase. 

‘The Arctic Ocean and especially its deep-sea areas have long been considered to be the most remote and secluded regions of our planet. Unfortunately, our results refute this notion at least for our observatory. The quantities observed were higher than those recorded from a deep-sea canyon not far from the industrialised Portuguese capital Lisbon,’ Dr. Bergmann explains.

oceanlitterBeer bottle engulfed by coral reefs, Mandag. Image: Jan MessersmithDr. Bergmann says that the project came about because of a ‘gut feeling’ that the littering was increasing and also because of the type of litter they were seeing. ‘We found plastic bags entangled in sponges, sea anemones settling on pieces of plastic or rope, cardboard and a beer bottle colonised by sea lilies,′ Bergmann states.

The scientists were not able to identify exactly where the litter has come from because much of the labelling on bottles and bags has eroded away. However they have come up with two clear reasons why the increase is happening. The ice sheet would have once acted as a natural barrier against the wind blowing waste into the sea, as the ice continues to melt the barrier is weakened.

The melting of the ice sheet has also opened the Arctic waters to both commercial and pleasure vessels. The Norwegian Island of Spitsbergen has seen an increase of three times the number of private yachts and thirty-six times the number of fishing vessels compared with 2007 figures. 

Despite the fact that a multilateral agreement on seafloor debris was signed almost twenty years ago, there have been very few cases where the culprit has been identified and prosecuted. It is clearly a very difficult situation to monitor. To catch someone throwing a bag of rubbish overboard in the dead of night is nigh on impossible. And even if you did catch someone doing something so irresponsible, finding the litter and connecting it to the individual or the vessel would be a costly exercise, one which may only result in a small fine. 

The majority of the litter observed in this study is plastic which could last for hundreds of years in the cold and dark conditions of the Arctic before it starts to break down. The plastic could therefore become a habitation for organisms, as Dr. Bergmann explains: ‘This means that, in the long term, the waste could change the deep-sea composition of species and therefore biodiversity.’

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