Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Around the Arctic February 14, 2017 - 11:45 am

Researchers find growing piles of trash on the Arctic seabed

“Our findings indicate that the Arctic faces a pollution problem and that it is spreading in the North”

STEVE DUCHARME
A piece of plastic, photographed in July 2015, lies on the floor of the Fram Strait, at a depth of about 2,500 metres. (ALFRED WEGENER-INSITUT /MELANIE BERGMANN)
A piece of plastic, photographed in July 2015, lies on the floor of the Fram Strait, at a depth of about 2,500 metres. (ALFRED WEGENER-INSITUT /MELANIE BERGMANN)
A sea anemone nestled against a piece of trash photographed on the floor of the Fram Strait in 2016 at a depth of about 2,500 metres. (ALFRED WEGENER-INSITUT /MELANIE BERGMANN)
A sea anemone nestled against a piece of trash photographed on the floor of the Fram Strait in 2016 at a depth of about 2,500 metres. (ALFRED WEGENER-INSITUT /MELANIE BERGMANN)

The Arctic’s growing tourism and shipping industry might not just bring more cash: it could bring more trash.

That’s according to a team of German scientists who report in the online scientific journal, Deep Sea Research Part 1: Oceanographic Research Papers, that more garbage sits on the Arctic seabed than ever before, and it’s linked to areas that have seen a boom in vessel traffic as Arctic ice recedes.

The report’s conclusions are drawn from photographs they collected between 2002 and 2014 that show trash resting on the ocean floor west of the High Arctic island of Svalbard.

Scientists Mine K. Tekman, Thomas Krumpen and Melanie Bergman say the high levels of trash density are “surprising,” considering “the remote location [of the field stations].”

So how much more waste?

One of two research locations between Greenland and Svalbard reached a “mean annual litter density,” or ALD, of 6,566 items per square kilometre in 2014, or slightly less than the 6,620 per sq. km. average for an area of the seabed near Lisbon—capital of Portugal—with a population well over half a million.

Those figures are a projected average, using an algorithm agreed upon by the academic community—actually there are only 89 pieces of trash catalogued in 7,058 photos taken across about 28,161 square metres.

But when compared with ship activity in the region, the data showed “significant positive correlations” between trash density and ship counts, according to the report.

“The increase in tourism and fishing vessel sightings west off Svalbard showed the strongest increase among maritime traffic information,” the report notes, adding that rough counts by coast guard vessels of ships in the area more than doubled between 2002 and 2014, from 47 sightings to 102.

Shifting norms for Arctic sea ice, which continues to set new record lows during the winter, allow more ships to travel further north in open water and areas of thin ice.

Thin ice can then deposit trash across the High Arctic when it melts in the summer, the report speculated.

“The receding sea ice coverage associated with global change has opened hitherto largely inaccessible environments to humans and the impacts of tourism, industrial activities including shipping and fisheries, all of which are potential sources of marine litter,” the report says.

Some of the items documented in the study include rope, fabric, glass, cardboard, pottery, timber and plastic.

And the trash isn’t just for decoration: 50 of the 89 catalogued trash items were interacting with organisms on the seafloor, such as sponges, stalked sea lilies, anemone and shrimp.

If that’s the case, then more seafloor trash is a trend Nunavut may have to look forward to in the coming years as the Arctic’s yearly sea ice extents continue to shrink and more ships routinely navigate through the Northwest Passage.

As Nunavut continues to develop regulations for its growing tourism industry, more ships—such as the record setting 1,000-passenger Crystal Serenity cruise ship—have navigated through the passage each year.

And most of those ships will be passing through Lancaster Sound, between Baffin Island and Devon Island, at some point in their journeys, potentially impacting a major marine polynya that was at the centre of a series of relinquished oil permits by Shell Canada last summer.

“Our findings indicate that the Arctic faces a pollution problem and that it is spreading in the North,” the report said.

“Considering the importance of the Arctic region for global climate and ecosystem health, identifying the changes in [human caused] stress and its direct or indirect sources provide future information for future projections to regulate human activities.”

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(11) Comments:

#1. Posted by Northener on February 14, 2017

That’s nothing compared to the graveyard of garbage found right outside of each community. Tonnes of sunken cars, trucks, skidoos, boats and equipment because too many people can’t be bothered to take care of their stuff. Especially if they can just apply through hunters assistance and get something brand new every year. It’s a disgrace!

#2. Posted by Southerner on February 14, 2017

#1 that is no where near the garbage we throw out in one city for all of the north.
Plastic is a big problem now in our environment, microscopic plastic is everywhere now, fish we catch in the sea, claims and mussels, you name it.
Sea currents bring in tons of garbage, plastic takes a really long time to break down, we eat it when we eat fish from the sea.

#3. Posted by Johnson on February 14, 2017

#1 sounds like a lot of fun at parties!

#4. Posted by Junk in the trunk on February 14, 2017

#3 You sound like a predictable bore yourself.

That said, #1 has a good point. There is absolutely no apparent concern for garbage in the communities (granted there are almost no facilities to deal with garbage properly).

#2 has a good point too. Plastics are carried around the globe along the ocean currents. This trash could have come from almost anywhere.

Despite any of that it is sickening, I agree.

#5. Posted by randar007 on February 14, 2017

We are doomed as a race from the garbage we put into the air,land and sea,yet we are oblivious to the detriment it is having on our own future on this planet. The only good point is that after we are gone, the earth will heal.

#6. Posted by Frankie on February 14, 2017

Isn’t it interesting how we are so concerned about garbage where nobody lives and so un-concerned about all the contaminants in our own backyards?

#7. Posted by Garbage on February 14, 2017

Even when we go out camping we wee other campsites where garbage is just left there, too lazy to bring it back to town.  Diapers, cans, paper - just blowing around there - come on people we have to leave our camps clean.

#8. Posted by Brenda Tracey on February 15, 2017

I have never been able to understand this. I have never once thrown garbage on the ground in all of my 58 years walking this planet.

#9. Posted by Snark on February 15, 2017

We are a plague in our own home, who still don’t know why the jet stream is wandering like an Ottawa Center-town drunk. As the Arctic Ocean goes ice-free, few people have planned to adapt to a fast-arriving change. How does places like Cambridge Bay end up being nearly 30C colder than Inuvik for 3-4 straight days?(the jet stream) What-a-mess…. Randy Bachman said it right. ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet’.

#10. Posted by Johnson on February 15, 2017

Thank you for recap #4! That was interesting.

#11. Posted by Amaruq on February 15, 2017

Sometimes high winds in the north can cause this pollution or wildlife around the area digging for left-overs make mess e.i. grizzlies damaging cabins; making mess, wolverines, foxes even seagulls. The wind picks up, plastics, light items are blown away towards sea. Like they say “Water is the strongest in this earth” light plastic are found in seabed areas…there my 2 cent say.

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