Discovery suggests there may be trillions of tiny bits of material pollutants trapped in Arctic ice

May 27, 2014 by Bob Yirka weblog
Arctic ice

(Phys.org) —A team of researchers with Dartmouth College in the U.S. and the University of Plymouth in the U.K. has found that a massive amount of tiny bits of rayon, plastics and other man-made materials are embedded in Arctic sea ice. In their paper published in the journal Earth's Future, the team describes how they found evidence of the materials in core samples taken in 2005 and 2010 and note that as Arctic sea ice melts, the embedded material will be released into the ocean, likely causing problems for marine life.

We all use plastics and other materials every day, but few of us give much thought to what happens to it after we toss it in the trash after it's no longer useful to us. A lot of it winds up in landfills, of course, but a lot goes missing and now it appears that the researchers studying , may have found where it's gone: it's been captured in Arctic sea ice, torn apart into tiny pieces during the journey there.

The rayon and plastic bits aren't noticeable to a person walking around in the Arctic because the pieces are so small, typically less than 5 millimeters in length. It's in the form of beads, fibers or irregular fragments. Scientists have observed such material in the ocean before, particularly around garbage islands such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But never before have scientists noticed them in ice cores taken from the top of the world.

The researchers don't see any imminent threat from the embedded materials—the problem is that global warming is causing Arctic to melt, and as it does so, it will release the captured material into the sea, and no one knows what sort of impact that will have. Most of the materials aren't expected to be toxic, but many are known to soak up chemicals, like a sponge. If the chemicals are toxic and an animal eats them, it likely would get sick or die.

In counting the number of bits of material in the ice cores and estimating the amount of ice they are in, the researchers have concluded that there might be in the neighborhood of a trillion pieces of the stuff in position ready to be released into the world's northern oceans. A little over half of the bits were rayon, the researchers report—others were polypropylene, acrylic, nylon, polyester, polyethylene and polystyrene.

Explore further: Researchers find temperature feedback magnifying climate warming in Arctic

More information: Global warming releases microplastic legacy frozen in Arctic Sea ice, Earth's Future, DOI: 10.1002/2014EF000240

Abstract
When sea ice forms it scavenges and concentrates particulates from the water column, which then become trapped until the ice melts. In recent years, melting has led to record lows in Arctic sea ice extent, the most recent in September 2012. Global climate models, such as that of Gregory et al. [2002], suggest that the decline in Arctic sea ice volume (3.4% per decade), will actually exceed the decline in sea ice extent, something that Laxon et al. [2013] have shown supported by satellite data. The extent to which melting ice could release anthropogenic particulates back to the open ocean has not yet been examined. Here we show that Arctic sea ice from remote locations contains concentrations of microplastics at least two orders of magnitude greater than those that have been previously reported in highly contaminated surface waters, such as those of the Pacific Gyre. Our findings indicate that microplastics have accumulated far from population centers and that polar sea ice represents a major historic global sink of man-made particulates. The potential for substantial quantities of legacy microplastic contamination to be released to the ocean as the ice melts therefore needs to be evaluated, as do the physical and toxicological effects of plastics on marine life.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Declining sea ice to lead to cloudier Arctic: study

Mar 31, 2012

Arctic sea ice has been declining over the past several decades as global climate has warmed. In fact, sea ice has declined more quickly than many models predicted, indicating that climate models may not be correctly representing ...

Recommended for you

NASA's spaceborne carbon counter maps new details

3 hours ago

The first global maps of atmospheric carbon dioxide from NASA's new Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 mission demonstrate its performance and promise, showing elevated carbon dioxide concentrations across the ...

Indonesia volcano erupts, injuring 4; 1 missing

4 hours ago

A volcano in eastern Indonesia erupted Friday, spewing towering clouds of hot ash into the air and leaving four hikers injured and one missing when they scrambled to safety, an official said.

User comments : 9

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

antialias_physorg
4.1 / 5 (9) May 27, 2014
Dammit. They put this weird picture up before. It's a fake. That's the coastline of florida superimposed on a snowfield.
Shootist
3 / 5 (6) May 27, 2014
found evidence of the materials in core samples taken in 2005 and 2010 and note that as Arctic sea ice melts, the embedded material will be released into the ocean,


The oceans have more surface area than the arctic, i'd say any "plastics and other materials" pollution of the ever pristine oceans has already occurred, in spades.
nevermark
4.2 / 5 (5) May 27, 2014
Shootist, the difference between the ocean and arctic is presumably that the ocean begins degrading the plastic as soon as it captures it, while the arctic has been storing up large amounts that will then get dumped (relatively speaking) all at once.

But now that there is net-positive melting occurring most years, the arctic will no longer be adding to its store of plastic, so this is a temporary one-time aspect of the pollution problem.
nevermark
4.2 / 5 (5) May 27, 2014
Oops, correction to my own comment above: Obviously ice that doesn't melt in any given year will continue accumulating plastic, so the extra load of plastics will continue at the edge of the arctic ice reductions until the steady retreat of ice stops, an event that doesn't look likely any time soon.
Caliban
3 / 5 (4) May 27, 2014
Oops, correction to my own comment above: Obviously ice that doesn't melt in any given year will continue accumulating plastic, so the extra load of plastics will continue at the edge of the arctic ice reductions until the steady retreat of ice stops, an event that doesn't look likely any time soon.


nevermark,

In relative terms, you were right the first time. If the present trend continues, it will only be a matter of a few more decades before all the multiyear ice is melted at least once --and that would be the end of the dumping on an absolute level.
After that, it will just be a churn of the surface layer plastic being frozen and thawed over'n'over.

Caliban
3.7 / 5 (6) May 27, 2014
found evidence of the materials in core samples taken in 2005 and 2010 and note that as Arctic sea ice melts, the embedded material will be released into the ocean,


The oceans have more surface area than the arctic, i'd say any "plastics and other materials" pollution of the ever pristine oceans has already occurred, in spades.


Perhaps, but the only question of any moment is:

Will you, shooty, and -Dyson, Freeman Dyson, be fine?

eric_in_chicago
5 / 5 (6) May 27, 2014
how about some photojournalism on the subject.

http://www.chrisj...%2018x24
thermodynamics
5 / 5 (5) May 27, 2014
how about some photojournalism on the subject.

http://www.chrisj...%2018x24


Sheesh. That is incredible. How can anyone look at that and not want to see something done about it. Thank you for posting that.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.6 / 5 (5) May 27, 2014
Dammit. They put this weird picture up before. It's a fake. That's the coastline of florida superimposed on a snowfield.
Well... duh. What would you think people would think it was?

As far as the article goes...

"a trillion pieces of the stuff" divided by "Arctic sea ice extent for April 2014 was 14.14 million square kilometers" equals 70721 bits per square kilometer. Less than 5 millimeters in length. I think I have that much lint in my carpet.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.