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Arctic Ocean Is A Dead End For Floating Plastics: How It Happened

19 April 2017, 9:56 pm EDT By Alyssa Navarro Tech Times
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Plastic pollution carried by a major ocean current has found its way into the Arctic ocean, threatening the region’s pristine ecosystem, a new study revealed. Researchers say the consequences can be “disastrous.”  ( Mario Tama | Getty Images )

Trillions of plastic waste are floating toward Arctic waters and threatening the ocean's marine ecosystem, a new study revealed.

From bottles and toys that accumulate in surface waters to fishing nets that settle in sea ice or on the sea floor, the Arctic ocean has become a dead end for plastic bits carried by a major ocean current, researchers said.

"It's only been about 60 years since we started using plastic industrially," said Carlos Duarte, a scientist from Saudi Arabia and one of the coauthors of the report. "The usage and the production has been increasing ever since."

How It Happened

Every year, more than 8 million tons of plastic pieces get into the ocean, and experts estimate about 110 million tons of tiny plastic fragments have built up in it.

In 2013, a team of researchers led by Andrés Cózar traveled aboard the French schooner, Tara, across the seas of Greenland and north of Scandinavia, where they discovered the mounting plastic garbage patch.

About 95 percent of the plastic in the Arctic has been found in the Greenland Sea and Barents Sea, and none were found beyond the area. Both bodies of water have indeed become dumping grounds in the North Atlantic branch of the Thermohaline Circulation — a major ocean current that carries plastic bits into the region. It is also known as the global ocean conveyor belt.

This huge ocean current carries warm waters from the Gulf of Mexico to the U.S east coast and northern Europe. Once the current arrives in the Arctic ocean, it sinks and travels back to the equator. However, the plastic waste does not sink with it, and so it is left behind in the Arctic waters to accumulate.

Researchers estimate that about 300 billion pieces of plastic have built up in the Arctic ocean, although the amount could be much higher. Furthermore, they believe there is more plastic waste on the sea floor.

Consequences Of Plastic Pollution

Erik van Sebille, one of the authors of the study, explained that the Arctic is "one of the most pristine ecosystems" on Earth, but it is also the ecosystem most under threat from sea ice melt and climate change.

As climate change continues to shrink sea ice cover in the Arctic, researchers say plastic pollution could spread more widely and do more harm in the region.

"Any extra pressure on the animals in the Arctic, from plastic litter or other pollution, can be disastrous," said Van Sebille.

The findings of the study are published in the journal Science Advances.

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