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Samples of Arctic sea ice contain up to 12,000 particles per liter.
The topic of global distribution of microplastics in the environment rises constantly, nevertheless there is not much information about it. Every year, tons of plastic waste enter the World Ocean, after which large pieces are broken into small debris. Naturally, tiny plastic is difficult to track, but scientists are already sounding the alarm: microplastic is found in the bodies of thousands of deep-sea creatures, and by 2050 the stomachs of all seabirds will contain plastic.
Recently, German specialists have found out that in the Arctic sea ice a huge amount of microplastic was stuck: 12,000 plastic particles per liter of sea ice. Recent work will help scientists understand how the microplastic is moving across the ocean.
The study was conducted by a team of specialists from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Germany. They extracted ice samples during the three Arctic expeditions in 2014 and 2015.
Their collection consisted of ice blocks extracted from five different regions of the Arctic Ocean along the Transarctic Current and the Frama Strait, carrying sea ice from the central Arctic to the North Atlantic.
These samples were then analyzed using a device called the Fourier infrared spectrometer (Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer). This technology helps not only to estimate the concentration and size of plastic particles inside the sample, but also to determine the types of plastic.
As noted above, the samples contained up to 12,000 particles per liter of ice, which is two to three times more than measured last year. Two-thirds of these particles were as large as 50 micrometers, or even less.
According to the first author of the study, Dr. Ilka Peeken, a biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, the team realized that more than half of the microplastic particles caught in the ice are incredibly small, which means that Arctic microorganisms, for example, infusoria or copepods, can easily absorb them.
"No one can say for sure how harmful such tiny plastic particles are for marine inhabitants or, ultimately, for humans", – she says.
However, it is known that the same fish "sat down" on plastic as fast food, and the contamination of the ocean by microplastics has threatened the worldwide harvest of oysters.
Specialists have determined that there are 17 different types of plastic in the ice, including common packaging materials – polyethylene and polypropylene, as well as polyester, nylon and cellulose acetate. In general, these materials accounted for about half of the total amount of microplastic detected.
Having determined which plastic "stuck" in the ice, scientists can guess where it came from. For example, nylon could well have come from ships and networks, perhaps as a result of active navigation and fishing in some parts of the Arctic. And polyethylene could have come from the Pacific garbage island.
Scientists can not yet say what will happen to this garbage further. It is possible that the plastic will continue to travel south through the ocean or gather around the Arctic, where it will probably start to sink at a fairly rapid rate.
"Bacteria and algae quite often populate free floating microplastic particles, as a result of which they become heavier. Sometimes they stick together with algae, and then drift to the seabed with much greater speed", – says the co-author of the study, Dr. Melanie Bergman (Melanie Bergmann).
The results of the research are presented in the scientific publication Nature Communications.
We add that another group of specialists found a way to identify "invisible" plastic, polluting the ocean.
If we talk about attempts to cleanse the World Ocean, scientists with this purpose develop new filters, come up with how to replace the usual packaging of products, and also look for new ways of recycling waste, for example, in stylish sunglasses.