A research team, led by the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, has discovered plastic particles, visible to the naked eye, in the Arctic ice during an 18-day expedition aboard the Swedish Icebreaker Oden.
The expedition, known as the Northwest Passage Project (NPP), was funded by the US National Science Foundation to investigate the impact of climate change on the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
Traveling through the Northwest Passage, the sea route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Arctic Ocean, the team discovered a variety of plastics in the sea ice cores collected from floes in the passage.
“At the micro scale, where we used to just see plankton and zooplankton, we found quite a bit of plastic in the sea ice,” according to Brice Loose, URI associate professor of oceanography and the expedition’s chief scientist.
Building on previous researches in the Central Artic, the NPP team collected plastic from ice floes that were up to about 8 feet in thickness.
“We thought we would need quite a bit of ice to find the plastics. So we started with an entire core of ice in order to concentrate it down to see how much plastic it contained. As it turned out, there was so much plastic that you could look at it with your naked eye and see all of the beads, fibres and filaments just sitting there in the bottom of the containers,” Loose said.
The collected samples reinforce the observation that ice concentrates microplastics in a much greater abundance than in an equivalent volume of seawater.
Sea ice, according to Loose, acts as a concentrator of everything that is in the water, as a result of the continual flushing of sea water through the ice, even after its formation. Through this process, the ice tends to build up and concentrate nutrients, algae and – as researchers are discovering – microplastics.
The findings of the study raise concerns that plastic particles may impact the structure of the ice and its absorption of solar radiation. The interaction of plastic particles with microorganisms, phytoplankton and zooplankton is also another point of concern.
“Even knowing what we knew about the occurrence of plastics across the globe – for us, it was kind of a punch to the stomach to see what looked like a normal sea ice… chock full of this material that is so completely foreign,” Loose further added.
Over the next few months, the scientists will be further analysing the samples and data they collected at sea to establish the chemical composition of the plastics.