Sep 27

The first traces of plastic debris have been found in the once pristine environment of the Southern Ocean, according to a new study.

Photo of small icebergs in Esperanza Bay, Antarctica

View of the Antarctic, in the Southern Ocean

The findings come after a 2.5-year, 70,000-mile voyage by the French scientific research vessel Tara, which has been sailing the world’s oceans to investigate the impacts of climate change.

Samples from locations in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica revealed traces of plastic waste at a rate comparable to the global average. This came as a surprise to the researchers, who had expected levels some ten times lower.

Discovering plastic at these very high levels was completely unexpected because the Southern Ocean is relatively separated from the world’s other oceans and does not normally mix with them,” said Chris Bowler, scientific co-ordinator of Tara Oceans.

Photo of southern rockhopper penguin, E. c. chrysocome, colony in typical habitat

The Southern Ocean is rich in wildlife, from penguins and fish to seals and whales

Fatal impacts

In addition to large items of waste, such as plastic bags, bottles and other plastic items, the world’s oceans also contain microscopic fragments that result from the degradation of larger items through years of exposure to seawater and sunlight.

The researchers were surprised to find that synthetic fibres, largely made up of clothing residues from washing machines, also comprised a significant portion of the plastic fragments they found.

Plastic pollution has many long-lasting and even fatal impacts on marine life. Birds, fish and other animals are known to regularly consume plastic waste, mistaking it for jellyfish or other prey, but it cannot be digested and remains in the stomach. Plastics also slowly release toxins and other chemicals, which can build up in the food chain.

Photo of dead Laysan albatross showing plastics in stomach

Dead Laysan albatross showing plastics in stomach

Human impacts ‘truly planetary’

Although it is difficult to identify the main source of the waste in the Southern Ocean, much of it is thought to originate from Africa, South America or Australia. Sadly, the fact that plastic debris has reached the Southern Ocean shows that our throw-away culture now has impacts around the globe.

Talking about the findings in the Southern Ocean, Chris Bowler said, “We had always assumed that this was a pristine environment, very little touched by human beings. The fact that we found these plastics is a sign that the reach of human beings is truly planetary in scale.”

Photo of green turtle feeding on jellyfish

Green turtle feeding on jellyfish. Turtles and other species often mistake floating plastic bags for prey.

Action against plastic waste

According to Bowler, it is too late to do much about the plastic already circulating in our oceans, as it will take thousands of years to degrade. However, we can take action against future pollution, for example by advocating the use of biodegradable materials and by changing consumer attitudes and behaviour.

The research ship Tara will continue its marine research in 2013, when it will travel to the Arctic to investigate the impacts of melting sea ice, a result of global climate change.

Read more on this story at The Guardian – Plastic debris reaches Southern Ocean, previously thought to be pristine.

Find out more about plastic waste with ARKive’s new teaching resource for 11 to 14 year olds: Human Impacts on the Environment.

Watch a video about the impact of plastics on the Laysan albatross.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

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