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Plastic Has Reached Remote Parts Of The Antarctic

'Plastic has now been found in all corners of our oceans, from the Antarctic to the Arctic.'

What you need to know
  • Research conducted by Greenpeace found microplastics and traces of chemicals found in remote parts of the Antarctic
  • The organisation is calling for an ocean sanctuary created to protect the frozen continent's fragile ecosystem from plastic pollution

Microplastics and traces of hazardous chemicals are showing up in even the most remote and pristine parts of the Antarctic, a new report has found.

Earlier this year, Greenpeace researchers spent three months taking seawater and snow samples from parts of the region, with the majority being found to contain microplastics and polyfluorinated alkylated substances (PFAS).

The findings, released on Thursday, furthered calls for the creation of an ocean sanctuary to protect the frozen continent’s fragile ecosystem from climate change and plastic pollution now affecting all corners of the world.

Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise conducting research between January and March 2018. Source: AAP via Greenpeace

“We may think of the Antarctic as a remote and pristine wilderness, but from pollution and climate change to industrial krill fishing, humanity’s footprint is clear,” Greenpeace’s Frida Bengtsson said.

“Plastic has now been found in all corners of our oceans, from the Antarctic to the Arctic and at the deepest point of the ocean, the Marianna Trench.”

“We need urgent action to reduce the flow of plastic into our seas.”

The samples were collected from the sea surface and seabed as well as freshly fallen snow in remote waters and islands off the Antarctic Peninsula and Bransfield Strait.

Seven of the eight seawater samples contained at least one microplastic fibre per litre, with two out of an additional nine samples taken also detecting microplastic fragments.

Concentrations of PFASs, a group of chemicals widely used in industrial processes and consumer products, were found in all of the 15 samples collected.

While larger pieces of plastic rubbish are more visible, microplastics are a growing concern. With a diameter of five millimetres or less, the tiny polluting particles can have far-reaching effects. 

Microplastics in seawater can be ingested by marine life along with food particles, with reports finding them in the stomach and other tissues of fish and shellfish.

But the exact nature and scale of threat to marine ecosystems is yet to be fully determined.

With little data available on the presence of microplastics in the Antarctic, researchers said the findings suggested that the continent’s natural barrier to seawater flowing from the north -- the Antarctica circumpolar current -- was being breached by the small particles.

Plastic pollution has reached the remote and pristine areas of the Antarctic. Source: AAP via Greenpeace

Researchers also found the traces of PFASs were unlikely to be due to contamination from research activities or local tourism as the collected snow was freshly fallen.

“The chemicals found in the snow could have been transported in the atmosphere over long distances, washed out by precipitation and then deposited in the snow," according to the report. 

A decision on the proposal for an Antarctic ocean sanctuary is expected to be made at the forthcoming meeting of the Antarctica Ocean Commission in Tasmania in October.