The Arctic Ocean is small, shallow, and—most importantly—shrouded. Unlike the other large oceans of the world, it is closely hemmed in by Asia, Europe, and North America, with very few watery entrances in and out. Some oceanographers call it the “Arctic Mediterranean Sea,” a nod both to its between-the-terra-ness and its similarity to that smaller ocean.
Often, that remoteness has played to its ecological advantage. Very few ships pass through the area (with all their attendant pollution and environmental disruption), at least compared to nearby waterways like the Bering Sea. It also helps that much of the Arctic freezes over every winter.
But a paper released this week in Science Advances argues that its location is now harming it. The first survey of the region has found that roughly 300 billion pieces of floating plastic, most of them tiny but visible to the unaided eye, have clogged the planet’s northernmost sea. The plastic, having been carried to the pole over decades, now has very few ways out.
In other words, the Arctic Ocean has become the Northern Hemisphere’s “dead end” for floating plastic.
“Our data demonstrate that the marine plastic pollution has reached a global scale after only a few decades using plastic materials,” said Andrés Cózar Cabañas, a biologist at the University of Cádiz. It is, he said, “a clear evidence of the human capacity to change our planet. This plastic accumulation is likely to grow further.”