A materials scientist at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College was melting Arctic ice to count microscopic algae called diatoms when she was shocked to discover huge quantities of microplastic waste trapped in it.
Speaking to CBC’s Quirks & Quarks on May 31, Saturday, the scientist Rachel Obbard said: “I was really shocked and saddened. I guess I, like most people, still consider the Arctic to be a pristine and remote area and clearly, our pollution has reached even it.”
When Obbard filtered the melted Arctic ice, she found that the filter paper had trapped not only diatoms and sand, but also a wide range of particles, some threads, some solid chunks, and some nodules, all in bright colors of red, orange, and blue. The fact that these microplastics were seen in ice samples from four different Arctic locations indicates that the microplatic pollution is widespread.
Obbard estimates that each cubic meter of Arctic sea ice contains microplastics in the range of 38 to several hundreds. A chemical analysis of the microplastics showed different types of plastics, including rayon, polycarbonate, and polyethylene.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic, the sizes of which range from one fingernail to microscopic. During the past 10 years, scientists have found them polluting lakes and oceans from all over the world, but never in the Arctic Ocean. They are definitely something to worry about as they absorb and concentrate other environmental pollutants; and when animals eat them, they become part of the food chain.
Obbard feels that microplastic waste reached the Arctic sea from heavily populated southern countries. Explaining that freezing ice concentrates microplatics, she said that they will be released back into the Arctic Ocean as soon as the ice melts.
Obbard is now trying to find out more about microplastic pollution in the Arctic sea. The results of her study can be read in Earth’s Future, an open access and peer-reviewed science journal.