Researchers on an expedition in the Arctic have reportedly found polystyrene plastic pollution on ice floes in the Arctic Ocean.
The Exeter University group found blocks of polystyrene, a plastic used to make a large variety of products, in areas that were previously covered in ice year-round, according to the Daily Telegraph.
"Finding pieces of rubbish like this is a worrying sign that melting ice may be allowing high levels of pollution to drift into these areas," said marine biologist Tim Gordon. "This is potentially very dangerous for the Arctic's wildlife."
Plastic pollution like polystyrene can break down into microplastics, which are then eaten by wildlife and go into the food chain.
"The Arctic Ocean's wildlife used to be protected by a layer of sea ice all year round," Gordon added. "Now that [the ice] is melting away, this environment will be exposed to commercial fishing, shipping and industry for the first time in history."
"We need to seriously consider how best to protect the Arctic’s animals from these new threats," said Gordon. "By doing so, we will give them a fighting chance of adapting and responding to their rapidly changing habitat."
Explorer Pen Hadow, who led the expedition, said it was the first time he had seen blocks of plastic in the Arctic Ocean, according to Canada Journal.
"For the 25 years I have been exploring the Arctic I have never seen such large and very visible items of rubbish," said Hadow. "The block of polystyrene were just sitting on top of the ice."
"Sailing into the central Arctic Ocean has allowed us to study this ecosystem as never before," added Gordon. "Without the usual disturbance of large ships' roaring engines and ice-breaking hulls, we have gained unique insights into this special and rapidly changing ecosystem."
The team used nets with tiny holes to search for microplastics in the water. The results will help determine a baseline to measure the effects of plastic pollution in the future.
"Many rivers lead into the Arctic Ocean that are often a source of plastic pollution, but plastic pollution has been literally trapped into the ice," said Dr. Ceri Lewis.
"Now the ice is melting, we believe microplastics are being released into the Arctic," added Lewis. "The Arctic is thought to be a hot spot of microplastics accumulation due to the number of rivers that empty into the Arctic basin, yet we have very little data to support this idea in the more northerly parts of the Arctic Ocean."
"This is really important data to collect, as the Arctic supports many key fisheries which might be impacted but the presence of microplastics," Lewis said.
The team also did tests to see how melting ice may affect how sound travels in the water, since some species in the Arctic use sound to navigate in the area. According to Gordon, these animals could be "blinded" by noise pollution from ships and other human activity.