Plastic pollution is the number one cause of beach and ocean pollution on the planet. There are millions of tons of plastic floating throughout Earth’s oceans, killing marine life, plants, and total ecosystems, it’s become one of the biggest epidemics in the realm of climate change. When one thinks about plastic in the oceans, the stereotypical image of plastic water bottles floating in open water and fish being trapped in plastic bags comes to mind. However, there’s a much deeper issue that lies within plastic ocean pollution, microplastics.
Microplastics are defined as pieces of plastic that are less than five millimeters in length, most commonly found in plastic drinking supplies, bottled water, as well as lakes, rivers, oceans, and even us. The impact on microplastics effect on the human body and environment are still being studied, as of right now any microplastics located inside of humans or animals, microplastics not regular plastic ingested, is completely harmless. The oceans however, could pose as a different story.
Taking standard oceans out of the equation, the Arctic seas of our world that support thousands of frozen ecosystems face a grave danger with microplastics and their effect on ice melting rates. The amount of microplastics found in arctic waters is higher than any other marine ecosystem on our planet and has only increased over the past years. More fishing and shipping industries are working in arctic environments where fish are more prominent and more land is available. As industrial work expands and inserts itself more into these environments, the more of a threat these particles have posed. Microplastics that start at Australia’s barrier reef could end up in the frozen seas, and most do.
In a recent paper published on the official Marine Pollution Bulletin, scientists discussed how they “studied whether and how microplastics could be incorporated within the sea ice structure. Microplastics within sea ice could impact the absorption of incident solar radiation. This affects sea ice albedo —how the ice reflects solar energy —one of the key properties of sea ice in terms of regulation of the heat exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere.”
Sea ice albedo is extremely important to global climate change and is the main reason that the ice caps are melting and ocean temperatures are rising. Due to man made pollution, the albedo of the arctic seas has shifted to distribute environmental heat in the water more than it’s reflecting the solar energy and heat off of it, thus leading to melting polar ice caps.
The same bulletin paper discussed a contained experiment that the scientists performed to mimic current Arctic water conditions with microplastic particles. The scientists determined there’s up to 41 microplastic particles per liter of water in the arctic, and through their experiments they discovered that these particles also tend to absorb heat, thus affecting the sea ice albedo.
The main concern lies in our industrial industries that pollute our oceans the most annually. Every year tons of waste is dumped into the oceans from fishing and aquatic shipping industries. The chemicals and particles that the equipment from these industries is distributing throughout marine ecosystems is what’s leading to total barrier reefs and fish populations being wiped out. Jennifer Provencher, head of the wildlife health unit for the Canadian Wildlife Service who studies the impacts of plastics in Arctic ecosystems spoke to National Geographic about this growing issue.
“The message I’m often trying to communicate to people, specifically people who live in the middle of the continent away from a large water body, is that there’s so much information about, you know, garbage patches and turtles with straws up their nose, all of that stuff, that people think that plastic pollution is a middle-of-the-ocean problem, and the more we work on this, the more we are learning that it’s not that simple, it’s an entire planet problem and it is especially an Arctic problem. From an ecosystem perspective we’re much more concerned about what happens when that snow melts and often enters the aquatic environment” she says.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at email@example.com.