Small Problems in the Big Ocean

Plastic pollution in our oceans has long been a visible issue in our society. Photos of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are so bad should they make you remember to bring your recyclable bags to Coles and Woolies.  But what about the plastic in our oceans we can’t see? I’m not talking about the bags and bottles underwater but rather micro plastics,  the 0.05 mm to 5 mm sized plastics that are spreading through our oceans at alarming rates.

With recent major global sampling efforts, it is evident that microplastics are dispersing all over the world, they have been found in the water column, sediments, and marine animal diets. A surprising dispersal rate has seen microplastics reaching as far as the Antarctic fjords.

A pristine environment, the fjords of the Western Antarctic Peninsula, have been revealed by retreating glaciers. The coast along the Western Antarctic Peninsula has long, narrow inlets created by glaciers. The climate of these environments have rapidly changed with climate change and sea-ice melt has led to a retreat of nearly 90% of glaciers in this region. The exposure of the fjords has lead to the formation of new habitats.

There are many challenges facing organisms that attempt to colonizing the new habitats of the fjords. Sediment and fresh water runoff make survival difficult and the addition of microplastics can further prevent the colonization. Microplastics can clog the feeding appendages of filter feeders and bring bacteria and chemical pollutants into these pristine environments. Colonization of these new habitats is important as it promotes climate change mitigation by removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Continued research will better inform us of the effects of microplastics on emerging habitats. in the mean time we must all do our bit to cut down our plastic and microplastic waste, for the future of our pristine environments.

If you would like to read more on microplastics in the Antarctic please refer to The Conversation article here.

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