Plastic pollution in the Antarctic is much worse than previously believed — five times worse, to be exact. According to a study by scientists at the University of Hull and the British Antarctic Survey, levels of microplastics in the region’s waters were much greater than formerly estimated.
Microplastics derive from items like toothpaste, shampoo, cosmetics and clothing, or breakdown from larger pieces of plastic debris. And while they usually enter the ocean by way of wastewater, more than half of the research stations in the relatively untouched Antarctic don’t have any such wastewater treatment plants, meaning the plastic is making its way through the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, previously thought to have been almost impossible to pass through.
“Antarctica is thought to be a highly isolated, pristine wilderness,” the researchers said in a press release Monday. “The ecosystem is very fragile with whales, seals and penguins consuming krill and other zooplankton as a major component of their diet. Our research highlights the urgent need for a coordinated effort to monitor and assess the levels of microplastics around the Antarctic continent and the Southern Ocean.”
Up to 51 trillion microplastic particles exist throughout the world’s oceans, an amount equal to 500 times the number of stars in the galaxy, according to the United Nations.
“We have monitored the presence of large plastic items in Antarctica for over 30 years,” the researchers said. “While we know that bigger pieces of plastic can be ingested by seabirds or cause entanglements in seals, the effects of microplastics on marine animals in the Southern Ocean are as yet unknown. This paper represents an excellent first step towards recognizing the presence of microplastics in Antarctica and allows…