There’s basically no place on Earth that humans have not spread plastic. In a new study published in Polar Biology, researchers report on the presence of plastic garbage in the Arctic Ocean, which may have come from a sixth great ocean garbage patch, a vortex of tiny particles of plastic that are hard for humans to see but that ruin those parts of the ocean for fish and other marine life.
The researchers weren’t even in the Arctic to check on garbage; they were there to study marine mammals and birds. They just figured they’d systematically look for trash floating on the surface while they were up there.
The best way to measure plastic trash in the ocean is with a net tow: the ocean breaks up plastic into such small bits, it’s not necessarily possible to see from afar. Even the known garbage patches aren’t giant islands of tangled plastic bags; they’re just places with much, much higher concentrations of plastic particles than other parts of the ocean. People that don’t know a patch is there could sail a boat through it and never notice.
This team used a coarser measure of garbage: from 60 feet up, on the bridge of a ship, or from a helicopter, they tried to spot visible pieces of trash. They found 31 in all—basically just a hint that there’s probably much, much more plastic, broken into tiny particles, in this part of ocean. One possibility is that the garbage that the team saw is coming from a patch in the Barents Sea off the northern coasts of Norway and Russia. Models have shown that such a patch would likely form, given the ocean currents and the amount of stuff humans throw in the sea.
As CityLab reports, the Arctic Ocean is already littered with garbage in a different way—on the sea floor, researchers have found piles of other human garbage. And this isn’t fun, shipwreck, Little Mermaid human garbage; it’s just plastic bottles, bags and other straight-up trash.
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