On an expedition with the research vessel Polarstern in summer 2021, she and a research team collected samples of Melosira algae and the surrounding water from ice floes. The partners from Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI), Dalhousie University and the University of Canterbury then analysed these in the laboratory for microplastic content. The surprising result: the clumps of algae contained an average of 31,000 ± 19,000 microplastic particles per cubic metre, about ten times the concentration of the surrounding water. “The filamentous algae have a slimy, sticky texture, so it potentially collects microplastic from the atmospheric deposition on the sea, the sea water itself, from the surrounding ice and any other source that it passes. Once entrapped in the algal slime they travel as if in an elevator to the seafloor, or are eaten by marine animals,” explains Deonie Allen of the University of Canterbury and Birmingham University who is part of the research team.
Since the ice algae are an important food source for many deep-sea dwellers, the microplastic could thus enter the food web there. But it is also an important food source at the sea surface and could explain why microplastics were particularly widespread among ice-associated zooplankton organisms, as an earlier study with AWI participation shows. In this way, it can also enter the food chain here when the zooplankton is eaten by fish such as polar cod and these are eaten by seabirds and seals and these in turn by polar bears.
The detailed analysis of plastic composition showed that a variety of different plastics are found in the Arctic, including polyethylene, polyester, polypropylene, nylon, acrylic and many more. In addition to various chemicals and dyes, this creates a mix of substances whose impact on the environment and living creatures is difficult to assess. “People in the Arctic are particularly dependent on the marine food web for their protein supply, for example through hunting or fishing. This means that they are also exposed to the microplastics and chemicals contained in it. Microplastics have already been detected in human intestines, blood, veins, lungs, placenta and breast milk and can cause inflammatory reactions, but the overall consequences have hardly been researched so far,” reports Melanie Bergmann. “Micro and nano plastics have basically been detected in every place scientists have looked in the human body and within a plethora of other species. It is known to change behaviours, growth, fecundity and mortality rates in organisms and many plastic chemicals are known toxins to humans,” says Steve Allen, OFI Dalhousie University, a research team member.
Moreover, the Arctic ecosystem is already threatened by the profound environmental upheavals caused by the climate crisis. If the organisms are now additionally exposed to microplastics and the chemicals they contain, it can weaken them further. “So, we have a combination of planetary crises that we urgently need to address effectively. Scientific calculations have shown that the most effective way to reduce plastic pollution is to reduce the production of new plastic,” says the AWI biologist and adds: “This should therefore definitely be prioritised in the global plastics agreement that is currently being negotiated.” That is why Melanie Bergmann is also accompanying the next round of negotiations, which will begin in Paris at the end of May.