Northern gannets build nests from discarded fishing nets on the North Sea island of Helgoland. Alfred Wegener Institute

Researchers say they’ve documented litter on the surface of extreme-northern waters.

It’s estimated there are at least 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic fouling up the oceans, not to mention inland floating garbage dumps like the Great Lakes.  Now plastic litter has invaded the remote waters of the Arctic, as well.

Researchers spotted large pieces of garbage on the ocean surface in the Barents Sea and Fram Strait, both east of Greenland, according to a paper published online this week in the journal Polar Biology. Tagging along with an icebreaker over a distance of 3,479 miles in 2012, the researchers noted 31 pieces of litter.  That may sound low until you realize they’re searching from way up on the ship’s bridge and in a helicopter. Plastic breaks down in the sea into what some deem a “soup”—tiny particles, readily consumed by fish and other organisms, that are best detected using micromesh nets.

The amount of plastic detritus in these frigid northern waters appears less than what’s in the temperate zones. But don’t expect it to stay that way. “[S]ince anthropogenic activities in the Fram Strait are expanding because of sea ice shrinkage, and since currents from the North Atlantic carry a continuous supply of litter to the north, this problem is likely to worsen in years to come unless serious mitigating actions are taken to reduce the amounts of litter entering the oceans,” according to a new study from the researchers, who hail from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, and the Laboratory for Polar Ecology in Belgium.

Marine mammals animals such as Greenland sharks and northern fulmars are gobbling up the plastic. That’s a problem, as it can clog their guts and starve them to death, as was the recent case with a melon-headed whale that inhaled a shopping bag off of Florida. What’s additionally worrying is that scientists aren’t sure how this stuff is making its way to the Arctic. One possibility is that a giant “garbage patch” is forming there, which could turn into a robust, swirling vortex of filth in as little as 50 years. The researchers explain in a press release:

The plastic litter reported from the Fram Strait could be leaking from a sixth garbage patch, which may be forming in the Barents Sea according to computer models. Such accumulation zones are created when large amounts of floating plastic debris are caught by ocean currents and concentrate in the centre of gyre systems.

We currently know of five garbage patches worldwide; the sixth patch in the Barents Sea is most likely in the early stages of formation. [Researcher Melanie] Bergmann believes it may be fed by the densely populated coastal regions of Northern Europe. “It is conceivable that part of that litter then drifts even farther to the north and northwest, and reaches the Fram Strait,” states the AWI biologist, adding, “Another cause for litter in the Arctic could be the retreat of the Arctic sea ice. As a result more and more cruise liners and fish trawlers are operating further north, following the cod. Most likely, litter from the ships intentionally or accidentally ends up in the waters of the Arctic. We expect this trend to continue.”

Bergmann says the plastification of the Arctic won’t be most evident on the ocean’s surface. Much of the crud drops down to the bottom of the sea—in fact, she says, the “litter density on the deep seafloor of the Fram Strait is 10 to 100 times higher than at the sea surface.” You can see some of the garbage she and other researchers found on the seafloor here, resting in Davy Jones’s dark locker in a highly preserved state.

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