Plastic Pollution in the Antarctic Worse Than Expected

A seal entangled in plastic netting on Bird Island. Credit Claire Waluda

By MarEx 2017-06-19 19:06:00

The levels of microplastic particles accumulating in the Antarctic are much worse than expected, according to U.K. scientists.

The continent is considered to be a pristine wilderness compared to other regions and was thought to be relatively free from plastic pollution. However, new findings by scientists from University of Hull and British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have revealed that recorded levels of microplastics are five times higher than would be expected just from local sources such as research stations and ships.

The results have raised the possibility that plastic originating from outside the region may be getting across the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, historically thought to be almost impenetrable.

Microplastics enter the oceans via wastewater and through the breakdown of plastic debris and have been shown to be persistent in surface and deep ocean waters and in deep sea sediments. Tests have shown that a single polyester fleece jacket can release more than 1,900 fibers per wash, while around half of discarded plastics are buoyant in seawater and may be subject to degradation by ultraviolet radiation and decomposition. More than half of the research stations in the Antarctic have no wastewater treatment systems, the research reports.

The Southern Ocean covers approximately 8.5 million square miles and represents 5.4 percent of the world’s oceans. It’s estimated that up to 500 kilograms of microplastic particles from personal care products and up to 25.5 billion clothing fibers enter the Southern Ocean per decade as a result of tourism, fishing and scientific research activities. While this is negligible at the scale of the Southern Ocean, the researchers say it may be significant at a local scale.

Biologist Dr Claire Waluda, a co-author at British Antarctic Survey, says: “We have monitored the presence of large plastic items in Antarctica for over 30 years. While we know that bigger pieces of plastic can be ingested by seabirds or cause entanglements in seals, the effects of microplastics on marine animals in the Southern Ocean are as yet unknown”.

The research was carried out in association with the Cientifica del Sur University in Peru.