Global warming releases microplastic legacy frozen in Arctic Sea ice

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.

Rachel W. Obbard, Saeed Sadri, Ying Qi Wong, Alexandra A. Khitun, Ian Baker and Richard C. Thompson, Earth’s Future, accepted May 2014.

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