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Arctic trash doubled in past decade

Photo of plastic waste, taken in the HAUSGARTEN area in July 2012. (Photo: Alfred Wegener Institute)

Biologists record increasing amounts of debris like plastic and other waste on the Arctic Ocean’s seabed. According to a new study, the amount has doubled in the past ten years.

Location

In a study published earlier this week in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, marine biologist and deep-sea expert at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research Dr. Melanie Bergmann, examined 2100 photographs of the Arctic seafloor at a depth of around 2500 meters in the Fram Strait between Greenland and Svalbard.

The quantities of waste observed are even higher than those found in a deep-sea canyon near the Portuguese capital Lisbon. 

For this study Dr. Melanie Bergmann examined some 2100 seafloor photographs taken near HAUSGARTEN, a deep-sea observatory of the Alfred Wegener Institute in the eastern Fram Strait. “The study was prompted by a gut feeling. When looking through our images I got the impression that plastic bags and other litter on the seafloor were seen more frequently in photos from 2011 than in those dating back to earlier years.  For this reason I decided to go systematically through all photos from 2002, 2004, 2007, 2008 and 2011,” Melanie Bergmann explains.

The camera is towed at a water depth of 2500 meters, 1.5 meters above the sea bed, and takes a photograph every 30 seconds. Deep-sea biologists principally use these photographs to document changes in biodiversity with respect to larger inhabitants such as sea cucumbers, sea lilies, sponges, fish and shrimps. 

Bergmann discovered that litter could be seen in twice as many photos from 2011 than in 2002. While she is unable to determine the origin of litter from photographs alone, she suspects that the shrinking and thinning of the Arctic sea ice may play an important role. “Ship traffic has increased enormously since the ice cover has been continuously shrinking and getting thinner. We are now seeing three times the number of private yachts and up to 36 times more fishing vessels in the waters surrounding Spitsbergen compared to pre-2007 times,” Melanie Bergmann says. Furthermore, litter counts made during annual clean-ups of the beaches of Spitsbergen have shown that the litter washed up there originates primarily from fisheries, the Alfred Wegener Institute’s web site reads.