Plastic pollution in the Arctic coast.

Since the COP26 climate change summit held in November 2021, the media focus has increasingly been on climate change and environmental degradation. However, one largely ignored aspect is that particular areas are more affected than others. One of these areas is the Arctic region.

Effects of Climate Change on the Arctic

As the planet warms, melting snow and ice makes the Arctic region darker, meaning that it absorbs more solar radiation. Because of this, the Arctic region is warming at three times the global average rate. This, combined with the loss of permanent ice, has significant implications for animal and plant life in the region. For example, polar bears are an endangered species that rely on seals as their primary prey, who in turn rely on floating sea ice to raise their young. With the loss of their main prey, starving polar bears roam further south and come into conflict with humans.

Climate change is the biggest threat to biodiversity in the Arctic. However, other factors related to human activity have a significant effect, plastic pollution being one of the most damaging.

Sources of Plastic Pollution in the Arctic

With the lack of significant human habitation in the Arctic, you would expect relatively low levels of plastic pollution. However, plastic pollution is widely reported across the entire region. One reason for this is that, although the Arctic contains just 1% of the global ocean volume, it receives over 10% of global river discharge. Ocean currents also play their part, bringing flows of plastic pollution from across North America and Europe.

There are also significant local sources of plastic pollution. For example, large amounts of plastic in the Arctic come from discarded fishing equipment. As well as this, there is significant cruise tourism leading to large quantities of bottles, plastic bags, containers and fabrics being found around Arctic coastal areas.

Effects of Plastic Pollution on Wildlife

The most visible effects of the buildup of plastic across the Arctic region are on the larger wildlife. For example, abandoned nets entangle marine mammals and fish; they have even been observed causing distress to reindeer when washed up on the coast. These larger pieces of plastic debris can also pose a risk to shipping, becoming tangled in propellers or clogging engine intakes.

However, the problems don’t end there. The plastics degrade into smaller particles that animals of every size then ingest. As a result, fulmars, cod and belugas have all been found with high levels of plastics in their digestive tracts. In addition, pieces of plastic can act as floating rafts for invasive species. For example, non-native barnacles have been found on plastic debris in the Norwegian coastal town of Svalbard.

As the plastics break down further, they persist within the food web. As well as harming wildlife, this can cause human health issues. For example, certain plastics have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, hormonal issues and fertility problems.

Reducing the Impact of Arctic Plastic Pollution

If left unchecked, the impacts of Arctic plastic pollution will have a considerable effect. For example, around 2.5 million tonnes of fish are caught in this region annually. The loss of this would have an incalculable impact on global food security.

Fortunately, efforts are underway globally to reduce plastic pollution. As well as recycling initiatives, many nations are passing legislation to eliminate single-use plastics like drinking straws, carrier bags and plastic cutlery. Some efforts are also being undertaken to reduce plastic packaging for food. For example, most major fast-food retailers now package their products in paper and cardboard.

However, a tremendous amount of plastic is already out there in the ocean, and measures are needed to clean this up. Non-profit organizations such as The Ocean Cleanup are working on methods to intercept plastic in rivers before it enters the ocean. They also plan to break up the floating “garbage islands” that have appeared on several oceans. Their slightly ambitious goal is to remove 90% of the plastic from the world’s oceans.

Both reduction and cleanup are strategies that we will need in the years ahead to keep the Arctic, and indeed all of the world’s oceans, clear of plastic pollution. But, as yet, efforts in either direction seem to be inadequate to the scale of the problem. If we are to avoid catastrophic impacts, these efforts need to be scaled up dramatically.

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