Blog: Hunting for microplastics in the high Arctic
23 August, 2022
Huw Griffiths works in the Biodiversity Team at British Antarctic Survey. As he completes fieldwork in the Canadian Arctic with colleagues Cath Waller (University of Hull) and Steve Roberts (BAS), this blog describes why they are hunting for plastic on the beaches and how they hope results from the team’s work will help to change attitudes and policy in the region
The “Biodiversity and Plastics in Arctic Intertidal and Nearshore Terrestrial Systems” (B-PAINTS) team have completed our first week in Nunavut working at the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) in Cambridge Bay/Iqaluktuuttiaq/ᐃᖃᓗᒃᑑᑦᑎᐊᖅ. Time has flown by, and the weather has gone from hot and sunny to colder with 100 km/h winds.
We are working on the beaches around the bay studying the biodiversity and looking for pollutants such as microplastics. The waters of Cambridge Bay are frozen for most of the year, making the beaches an inhospitable place for most types of life. Unlike most rocky shores around the world, Cambridge Bay has no intertidal seaweeds and very few species of animals known from the beach. The last published survey from 1961 recorded only a single species of animal from the beaches of Cambridge Bay, the amphipod crustacean Gammarus setosus. So far, we have found this species in large numbers and one example of another species of amphipod and some mussels. This very low biodiversity is probably a result of the continual scouring of the beach by ice for most of the year, but the deeper waters of the bay are known to support a rich diversity of seafloor life.
As well as studying the biodiversity, we are looking for microplastic pollution in the air, dust, beach sediments, animals and water. Unfortunately, microplastics are known from all regions of the Earth and Cambridge Bay is no exception. Our preliminary results have found what appear to be plastic fibres and particles everywhere we have looked. We hope to use our samples to build up a picture of the pollution hot spots around the bay.
We are using our multi-spectral drone to survey the beaches from above for biodiversity and larger pieces of plastic. The drone can cover a far larger area than humans during the limited time that the tide is at its lowest point. The drone images highlight the lack of any large plant life in the shallowest waters of the bay compared to the bright red hot spots of the plants on land and seaweeds underwater further offshore.