We know about plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean, and even in the Arctic Ocean. But scientists thought the Antarctic was relatively free of that particular type of pollution until a recent study from the University of Hull, Científica del Sur University, and the British Antarctic Survey. Researchers discovered the levels of microplastics in the area once thought to be pristine are much greater than expected.
Microplastic levels in the Antarctic are five times greater than anticipated, according to the international team. Microplastics are those tiny particles less than five millimeters in diameter found in personal care items like toothpaste and shampoo, but they can also come from clothing fibers or be created as larger pieces of plastic in the ocean break down.
The researchers found the plastic around the Antarctic continent and in the Southern Ocean, which is around 8.5 million square miles large. They think plastic originating outside the area may be coming in over the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which scientists in the past considered nearly impassible.
University of Hull scientist Catherine Waller, lead author on a study published this year in Science of the Total Environment, said the ecosystem of the Antarctic is very fragile, and the area was thought to be isolated. It’s populated with krill that might eat the microplastics, and in turn be consumed by larger marine mammals like whales.
Co-author Claire Waluda of the British Antarctic Survey said in a statement, “We have monitored the presence of large plastic items in Antarctica for over 30 years. While we know that bigger pieces of plastic can be ingested by seabirds or cause entanglements in seals, the effects of microplastics on marine animals in the Southern Ocean are as yet unknown.” The scientists called for urgent international monitoring of the plastic in the Antarctic.