May 23, 2014

"A new study has found plastic debris in a surprising location: trapped in Arctic sea ice."

AAAS "Humans produced nearly 300 million tons of plastic in 2012, but where does it end up?" by Eric Hand

'Scientists already knew that microplastics—polymer beads, fibers, or fragments less than 5 millimeters long—can wind up in the ocean, near coastlines, or in swirling eddies such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But Rachel Obbard, a materials scientist at Dartmouth College, was shocked to find that currents had carried the stuff to the Arctic.

'In a study published online this month in Earth’s Future, Obbard and her colleagues argue that, as Arctic ice freezes, it traps floating microplastics—resulting in abundances of hundreds of particles per cubic meter. That’s three orders of magnitude larger than some counts of plastic particles in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. “It was such a surprise to me to find them in such a remote region,” she says. “These particles have come a long way.”

'The potential ecological hazards of microplastics are still unknown. But the ice trap could help solve a mystery: Industrial plastic production has increased markedly in the last half-century, reaching 288 million tonnes in 2012, according to Plastics Europe, an industry association. But ecologists have not been able to account for the final disposition of much of it. The paper shows that sea ice could be an important sink—albeit one that is melting, says Kara Lavender Law, an oceanographer at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, who was not part of the study. “There could be freely floating plastics, in short order.” The authors estimate that, under current melting trends, more than 1 trillion pieces of plastic could be released in the next decade.'

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