Impact of Plastic in the Polar Regions

Impact of Plastic in the Polar Regions

Start date
1 October, 2017
End date
1 October, 2020

An estimated 75% of all the litter in our oceans is plastic, and around 5 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the ocean annually. Observations of a significant concentration of plastics debris in both polar oceans indicate that plastic pollution is a global problem.  The impacts of this debris on the sensitive polar ecosystem could be profound.

Plastic debris found on a beach in Greenland

The Southern Ocean has the lowest densities of large plastic litter in the world. For the last three decades, the British Antarctic Survey has been regularly monitoring large plastic debris washed up on beaches near its research stations and recording incidences of ingestion and entanglements of birds and mammals. Many of these animals travel huge distances to find food and can bring plastics and other marine debris to the Antarctic from more polluted areas of the world.

A seal entangled in plastic netting on Bird Island

More recently we have also turned our attentions to the emerging and worrying issue of microplastics, smaller pieces of plastic less than 5 mm in size. Microplastics can come from a range of sources: personal care products (such as toothpastes, shampoos and shower gels); synthetic fibres from laundry; and from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic debris. Microplastics have been found in the seas of the Arctic and Antarctic, including surface waters and deep-sea and shallow sediments. These tiny particles and plastic fibres have been shown to negatively impact a variety of marine species. BAS scientists collect water, ice and sediment samples from the Arctic and Antarctic in order to understand how widespread these small pieces of plastic are.

Microplastic fibres and particles found in the Southern Ocean

Our scientists are working with our collaborators to quantify how much plastic pollution there is in the polar regions, where it comes from and what effects it is having on polar ecosystems.

Deploying a microplastic net in the Canadian Arctic
Sarah Reed collecting samples for microplastics near Rothera Research Station

Read the report from the BAS-CCI workshop ‘Plastics in the Ocean: Challenges and Solutions’ here

For more information about how the international community is dealing with Plastics at the Poles there will be a meeting at on Sunday 17 June 2018.

Records of macro- and microplastics found so far in the Southern Ocean
  • To quantify plastic pollution in the polar regions
  • To identify the sources of this plastic
  • To understand what effects it is having on polar ecosystems
  • To provide information and advice to government and international policy makers

Kirstie Jones-Williams – PhD Student


External Collaborators

Cath Waller – University of Hull, UK

Iván Loaiza – Científica del Sur University, Peru

Bernabé Moreno – Científica del Sur University, Peru

Cesar O. Pacherres – Alfred Wegener Institute, Germany

Richard Thompson – Plymouth University

Tamara Galloway – University of Exeter

Steve Fletcher – UNEP-WCMC

Ilaria Corsi – Università di Siena

Elisa Bergami – Università di Siena

Matthew Cole – Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Bhavani Narayanaswamy – The Scottish Association for Marine Science

Philip Anderson – The Scottish Association for Marine Science

 

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