Plastic Trash May Travel to the Arctic from a Sixth Garbage Patch in the Ocean

First Posted: Oct 23, 2015 06:30 AM EDT

Plastic trash can be found around the world-even the Arctic. Scientists have found that this marine litter is present at the sea surface of Arctic waters, though they're still unsure how it made it so far north.

In order to gauge the level of pollution, the researchers took advantage of an expedition that brought the research icebreaker Polarstern to the Fram Strait, which is an area between East Greenland and Svalbard. There, the scientists searched for litter floating on the sea surface from the ship's bridge and by helicopter. In all, the researchers found 31 pieces of litter. This may only seem like a little, but it confirms that there's trash in the Arctic.

"Since we conducted our surveys from the bridge, 18 meters above sea level, and from a helicopter, we were only able to spot the larger pieces of littler," said Melanie Bergmann, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Therefore, our numbers are probably an underestimate."

But where is the garbage coming from? The researchers believe that it could be leaking from a sixth garbage patch, which may be forming in the Barents Sea, according to computer models.

Currently, we know of five garbage patches worldwide. The sixth patch in the Barents Sea is likely in the early stages of formation. It could be fed by the densely populated coastal regions of northern Europe.

"It is conceivable that part of that litter then rifts even farther to the north and northwest, and reaches the Fram Strait," said Bergmann. "Another cause for litter in the Arctic could be the retreat of the Arctic sea ice. As a result more and more cruise liners and fish trawlers are operating further north, following the cod. Most likely, littler from the ships intentionally or accidentally ends up in the waters of the Arctic. We expect this trend to continue."

The findings are published in the journal Polar Biology.

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