Antarctic Garbage Patch Coming?

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You’ve heard about the Pacific garbage patch and the Atlantic garbage patch, each a sobering sign of how when we throw things away, they don’t go “away” — they often go into the sea, where they remain for a long, long time.

Much of the global ocean remains uncharted in terms of pollution, but unfortunately the more we look, the more we find. And now even the most remote, pristine waters on the planet — the coastal seas of Antarctica — are being invaded by plastic debris.

In a series of surveys conducted during the austral summer of 2007-2008, researchers at the British Antarctic Survey and Greenpeace trawled the region, skimming surface waters and digging into the seabed. Even in the exceedingly remote Davis and Durmont D’Urville seas they found errant fishing buoys and a plastic cup. Plastic packaging was found floating in the Amundsen Sea (see map).

It doesn’t sound like much, but finding trash in the far corners of the planet is a worrying sign. The research team, led by David Barnes of the British Antarctic Survey, believe the debris they found represents the leading edge of a tide of man-made refuse that is just now starting to make its way into the most secluded parts of our oceans.

If there’s good news, it’s this: sledges dragged along the seafloor

turned up a healthy, vibrant Antarctic ecosystem, and nothing else.

Plastic bits are ubiquitous in beach sands and coastal sediments

throughout much of the

world, but the reach of humanity’s profound plastic habit and

throw-away culture has so far failed to reach the bottom of these

southern seas.

The researchers, though, have a gloomy outlook for what they might find in a future trip to the region. In a letter to the journal Marine Environmental Research, they write:

The seabeds immediately surrounding continental Antarctica are probably the last environments on the planet yet to be reached by plastics, but with pieces floating into the surface of the Amundsen Sea this seems likely to change soon. Our knowledge now touches every sea, but so does our legacy of lost and discarded plastic.

Map: USGS/LIMA

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