Plastic waste in the ocean is now so widespread it is polluting remote ice floes in the Arctic, scientists have discovered.
A team from Exeter University discovered blocks of polystyrene in areas hundreds of miles from land which until recently were covered by ice all year round.
Large plastic pieces break down into ‘microplastics which are consumed by wildlife are then passed up the food chain.
The expedition was able to go further into the Central Arctic Ocean than any other yacht in history, because of recent reductions in summer ice cover in the Arctic, which is thought to be the result of climate change.
Marine biologist Tim Gordon of Exeter University (http://www.exeter.ac.uk/)said: “Finding pieces of rubbish like this is a worrying sign that melting ice may be allowing high levels of pollution to drift into these areas.
“This is potentially very dangerous for the Arctic’s wildlife.
“The Arctic Ocean’s wildlife used to be protected by a layer of sea ice all year round. Now that is melting away, this environment will be exposed to commercial fishing, shipping and industry for the first time in history.
“We need to seriously consider how best to protect the Arctic’s animals from these new threats. By doing so, we will give them a fighting chance of adapting and responding to their rapidly-changing habitat.”
They will now analyse the samples in the laboratory to evaluate current levels of pollution in the Arctic and its likely impacts on wildlife.
Scientists fear there is now enough plastic to form a permanent layer in the fossil record.
Dr Ceri Lewis, scientific adviser to the expedition based at the University of Exeter, said: “Many rivers lead into the Arctic Ocean that are often a source of plastic pollution, but plastic pollution has been literally trapped into the ice.
“Now the ice is melting we believe microplastics are being released into the Arctic. The Arctic is thought to be a hot spot of microplastics accumulation due to the number of rivers that empty into the Arctic basin, yet we have very little data to support this idea in the more northerly parts of the Arctic Ocean.
“This is really important data to collect as the Arctic supports many key fisheries which might be impacted but the presence of microplastics.”
The team are is investigating the impact of man-made noise pollution on Arctic marine life and mammals, which can be particularly sensitive to sound.
The Arctic Mission team used underwater loudspeakers and microphones to understand how sound travels through the polar seas, and how this might be impacted by ice loss.
Professor Steve Simpson, an expert in bioacoustics and noise pollution at Exeter said: "It is critical that we establish baseline natural recordings in this newly exposed oceanic environment.
“These recordings will allow us to understand how human activities are changing the soundscape of the summer Arctic, and assess the success of future noise management in this unique acoustic world.”