Nat Geo: Why does the Arctic have more plastic than most places on Earth?

Plastics travel on ocean currents and through the air to the far north and accumulate—sometimes inside the animals that live there.


GREENLAND SEA, ABOARD THE KRONPRINS HAAKONOn an ice floe in the Greenland Sea, high above the Arctic Circle, Ingeborg Hallanger is vacuuming up plastic.

We’re standing on a patch of “fast ice,” so called because it’s held fast in a jumble of icebergs stuck on the shallow shelf off Greenland’s northeast coast. A rumpled white tabletop, pocked by blue meltwater pools and webbed with cracks, stretches to the horizon. Greenland’s glaciers shimmer in the distance.

Hallanger, a researcher with the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø, Norway, peers into a hole that has been drilled through the yard-thick ice and threads a hose down to the liquid surface just below. As other members of the research expedition patrol with rifles for polar bears, whose appearance would force a hasty retreat to the ship moored nearby, Hallanger switches on a pump and begins filtering tiny particles out of the seawater.

Here in the Arctic, hundreds of miles from the nearest big city, are some of the greatest loads of plastics on the planet. Studies find higher concentrations of microplastics in sea ice in these remote, high-latitude hotspots than in the five infamous ocean garbage patches. And a recent report finds airborne microplastics are falling on the far north mixed with snow.

Hallanger, an ecotoxicologist, wants to know how the deluge of synthetic materials may affect life in the ice-edge habitats that form the foundation of the ocean food web.

“If it’s true that the ice has so much plastics in it,” she says, “then organisms living in and beneath the ice may have some of the ocean’s most contaminated living spaces.”

Plastics across the North
The area where Hallanger is working is one of the most plastic-polluted parts of the Arctic. Within this passage between east Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard Islands—a hub of ocean currents called the Fram Strait—a recent study found more than 12,000 microplastic particles per liter of sea ice. That amount is similar to the highest reported concentrations floating off polluted urban coasts. And it’s surpassed by the 14,000 particles per liter recently found in the snow on top of Fram Strait sea ice.

But the Arctic plastics invasion isn’t confined to the Fram Strait. Scientists are finding microplastics across the High North, from the Beaufort Sea to the Canadian archipelago to the waters off Siberia, and they’re starting to tease out the reasons why. Arctic Ocean surface waters hold the most plastics of any ocean basin. The number of particles measured in some parts of the Arctic ocean bottom are the highest in the world. Fragments of man-made materials are turning up in Arctic wildlife. Especially birds. And especially a gull-like bird called the Northern fulmar, which has become a magnet for plastics.

Read more