Marine plastic pollution in the Arctic: an emerging research field

Publisert: 16. mars 2018

We find marine plastic litter everywhere we look, but we still know far too little about the extent of this problem in Arctic regions.  

In the last five years, a group of Fram Centre researchers has taken on the challenge of filling some of the knowledge gaps about plastic pollution in the high north, as well as pointing out sources that were previously overlooked. These include crumb rubber used in artificial turf and synthetic fibres released to fjords with wastewater effluents in arctic settlements.

In the beginning…

The geographic distribution of plastic litter, its sources and sinks, and its effects on arctic ecosystems long remained virtually unstudied.

Surprisingly, the scientific community has been ignoring the problem of increasing plastic litter in the world oceans for nearly a quarter century – despite the obvious visual clues left behind on beaches everywhere.

Examples of knowledge gaps about the behaviour, pathways and impacts of plastic litter in the Arctic (© Herzke, Halsband & Bjørklid)

It is clear that significant amounts of plastic litter arrive in the remote regions of the Arctic, but systematic research to map its provenance has begun only recently. The Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) first reported plastic ingestion by northern fulmars in Svalbard in the mid-1980s. In 2010, the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU) initiated CLEANSEA, an EU project on marine plastic pollution, together with the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA) and the University of Amsterdam.

Joining forces

Although several individual researchers at Tromsø-based institutes have worked on different aspects of plastic pollution for many years, no concerted effort had been made until 2012. Then, a Fram Incentive project brought interested researchers in the Fram Centre together to gauge interest and expertise in the field.

Since then, the Centre’s Hazardous Substances flagship programme has awarded more than 2.5 million NOK of funding for research and outreach on plastic litter, leading to a new network of expertise and new insights into the problem in northern and Arctic areas. The research activities cover a broad range of topics, including spatial distribution, and chemical characterisation of plastics and their additives (Institute of Marine Research [IMR], NILU, NPI), understanding sources, pathways and effects of ingestion (Akvaplan-niva, NILU, NIVA, SINTEF), and estimating the socioeconomic consequences of marine plastic pollution (Northern Research Institute [NORUT]). These investigations have led to 8 peer-reviewed publications and 6 reports so far. The results highlight that.

  •  Plastic pollution is ubiquitous along the Norwegian coast and around Svalbard
  • Plastic ingestion by Svalbard fulmars does not decrease northward as would be expected as the distance from human marine impact increases
  • The impact of ingested microplastics on the concentrations of persistent organic pollutants in bird tissue is negligible and needs to be considered in the context of background contamination values
  • Atlantic cod along the Norwegian coast ingest (micro)plastics
  • Arctic zooplankters ingest microplastics in laboratory experiments and prefer “aged” particles over clean ones, because marine microbes form a nutritious biofilm around the plastic
  • Microplastics alter the sinking rates of zooplankton faecal pellets, which could reduce the vertical carbon flux in marine systems
  • Marine plastic pollution is a circumpolar challenge, already described in the early 1970s, with unknown sources and impacts

Inspiring interest

Within these projects and with additional financial help from the incentive fund, we work to address the enormous interest of the general public, who seek information about the problems marine plastic pollution can cause.

The most recent example is an exhibition and quiz, funded by the Fram Centre and organised in collaboration between NORUT, NPI, NILU, Akvaplan-niva and Polaria, where the public can learn and then test their knowledge about plastic production, recycling and pollution. At the research fair “FrittFram”, activities relating to contaminants, including plastic, are offered every fall by Tromsø Kommune, NGOs, and most of the Fram Centre institutions involved in research.

Research fair. Photo: Dorte Herzke, Norwegian Institute for Air Research.

Communicate, coordinate – take action!

We still lack reliable data on the extent of microplastics pollution and its ecological impacts through exposure to plastic litter itself or its additives and adsorbed contaminants throughout the Arctic marine ecosystem. Although microplastics have been recognised as an emerging contaminant, e.g. by the Norwegian Environment Agency and the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, the quest for coordinated research funding required to investigate the global problem of Arctic marine plastics comprehensively proved difficult.

Through direct dialogue between researchers and regulators, we need to communicate how better knowledge and coordinated research will enable policy makers to develop appropriate measures and action plans to tackle this environmental challenge.

Panel debate between scientists and policy makers at Arctic Frontiers 2018. Left to right: Ola Elvestuen, Norway’s minister of Climate and the Environment, invited speaker Dr. Jenna Jambeck (University of Georgia, USA), Jan Dusik, Principal Adviser for Strategic Engagement for the Arctic and Antarctic at UN Environment, Marit H. Haugseth, Norwegian Fishermen’s Association, Fram Centre researcher Dr. Claudia Halsband (Akvaplan-niva), Fridtjof Fossum Unander, head of Energy, Resources and Environment at the Norwegian Research Council, and Karoline Andaur, acting secretary general of WWF Norway. Photo: Terje Mortensen / Arctic Frontiers 2018.

One step towards improving communication with the policy sector was a panel debate at Arctic Frontiers 2018, about what science can provide to tackle the issues of plastic litter and microplastics in the Arctic. The panel included Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s minister of Climate and the Environment, Fram Centre researcher Geir Wing Gabrielsen, Karoline Andaur, acting secretary general of WWF, Fridtjof Fossum Unander, head of the department for Energy, Resources and Environment at the Norwegian Research Council, and invited speaker Dr. Jenna Jambeck (USA)in January 2018.

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