Microplastics alert, also found in Arctic algae

Man is known to have interfered excessively with nature to the point of altering and polluting what was beautiful and healthy. Unfortunately, every day scientific discoveries add a new element to the disastrous consequences caused by industrial activities, especially in the food sector. We are not only talking about the environmental impact on plants, vegetation and animals, but also about the harmful consequences for humans. One of the biggest threats is represented by the widespread presence of microplastics.

High concentration of microplastics in Arctic marine algae

An international research team, composed of scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institut Helmholtz Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung in Bremerhaven, Germany, in collaboration with the Ocean Frontiers Institute of Dalhousie University in Canada and the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Science from the University of Birmingham in the UK recently conducted a study that revealed startling results. Using the vessel Polar Stern as a base of operations, the researchers took samples of an algaplankton called arctic melosira, which was soaked in seawater. Laboratory tests have revealed a abundant presence of microplastics, with a quantity between 13,000 and 57,000 fragments per cubic meter. During a press conference, the researchers highlighted that this amount corresponds to approximately ten times the concentration of microplastics compared to the surrounding water, thus underlining the extraordinary magnitude of this discovery.

A trap for microplastics in the Arctic sea

Melosira arctica, a type of seaweed, grows under the sea ice during the spring and summer. This alga forms long chains of cells that have a sticky and viscous consistency, capturing microplastics from atmospheric depositions on the sea, sea water, surrounding ice and other sources present. Once trapped in the stickiness of the seaweed, the microplastics move rapidly to the bottom of the sea, carrying materials such as polyethylene, polyester, polypropylene, nylon, acrylic and many others with them. This mixture of substances has an impact on the environment and living creatures that is not easily assessed.

During an expedition conducted in 2021 aboard the research vessel Polarstern, a group of researchers collected samples of Melosira and the water surrounding the ice formations. Subsequently, these samples were analyzed to determine the presence of microplastics. The result obtained was truly surprising: “The clumps of algae contained an average of 31,000 ± 19,000 microplastic particles per cubic meter, about 10 times the concentration of the surrounding water“, said the scientists.

A threat to the Arctic food chain

Filamentous algae have a slimy, sticky texture potentially collect microplastics from atmospheric deposition over the sea, from the same sea water, from the surrounding ice e from any other passing source. Once trapped in the algal slime, the microplastics travel like an elevator to the seabed, or are eaten by marine animals.

Since ice algae are an important food source for many deep sea dwellers, thea microplastic could then enter the food web. But it is also an important source of food on the sea surface and may explain why microplastics were particularly prevalent among ice-associated zooplankton organisms, as shown by a previous study with the participation of AWI. In this way they can also enter the food chain here when zooplankton are eaten by fish such as polar cod and these are eaten by seabirds and seals and these in turn by polar bears.

Detailed analysis of plastic composition has shown that a variety of different plastics are found in the Arctic, including polyethylene, polyester, polypropylene, nylon, acrylic and many others, as well as various chemicals and dyes.

An underestimated threat

Scientist Bergman and researcher Allen have sounded the alarm about the consequences of microplastics for the Arctic and for the entire food chain. According to Bergman, people who depend on the marine food web in the Arctic region are exposed to microplastics and chemicals, with possible inflammatory reactions. Allen, on the other hand, points out that micro and nano plastics have been found practically everywhere in the human body and in many other species, influencing the behavior, growth, fecundity and mortality of organisms. In addition, many plastic chemicals are known human toxins. Further study of the overall consequences of this widespread threat is urgently needed.

The Arctic ecosystem threatened by the climate crisis

Furthermore, the Arctic ecosystem is already threatened by the profound environmental upheavals caused by the climate crisis. Further exposure of marine organisms to microplastics and the chemicals they contain can further weaken them. According to the AWI biologist, the most effective solution to reduce plastic pollution is to decrease the production of new plastic.

The AWI biologist, participant in the next round of negotiations on plastic pollution which will start in Paris at the end of Maysays this solution should be a priority in the global plastics deal currently under negotiation.

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