TRASH HAS crept onto the pristine islands of the Arctic Circle, Thai researchers discovered in their two-week-long study on climate change and marine plastics.
“It was a disturbing scene. We landed on the northernmost island [Phippsoya]. It was a pure and unpopulated land, yet we saw trash at every single step we took – every single step,” Chulalongkorn University’s Assoc Prof Suchada Chavanich said.
She and Assoc Prof Voranop Viyakarn, from the same university, headed for the Arctic Circle on July 24 to study the effects of climate change and microplastic on marine animals. They focused their studies on the islands in the northernmost part of Norway.
The researchers said they had not expected so much trash in the area.
“We thought there would be less and less trash as we travelled north. But what we saw totally debunked our theory,” Suchada said.
The trash they found ranged from rubber gloves to fishing nets and plastic bottles. The garbage had apparently been carried by the current and washed ashore on the islands.
Trash like this could strangle marine animals or, when consumed, lead to indigestion and death. Also microplastic – less than 5mm in diameter and caused by the degradation of bigger pieces of plastic – can be equally dangerous.
Microplastic, invisible to the human eye, travels in the food chain all the way from phytoplankton to bigger animals until it reaches humans, Voranop explained. He said microplastic is found in the tissue of small animals such as clams, leading to abnormal growth and reproduction.
“Microplastic is tiny but sharp,” Suchada added. “It can irritate the digestive organs of fish.”
She said that some scientists fear that microplastic could even reside in human tissue and travel into our blood vessels.
Voranop, Suchada and their team risked encounters with polar bears and walruses to venture deep into the unexplored parts of the Arctic Ocean and gather samples of fish, marine animals and soil.
“There were times when I thought we wouldn’t make it,” Suchada said as she recounted her diving experience. The researchers wanted to collect animals living close to the ice sheets.
When they dove they expected the water to be murky but were shocked by the zero visibility. “I couldn’t see my partner or even the watch on my wrist. Under our feet was a 50-metre deep slope. Luckily we made it back to the ship,” Suchada said.
In theory, freshwater released from melting ice sheets will make the sea murky for 5 metres from the surface, however, climate change has increased the ice-melting rate and is causing poor visibility even 10 metres down, she explained.
Climate change is hitting the Arctic hard. The researchers saw different kinds of jellyfish instead of icebergs. This, Suchada said, indicated a warming sea. They also saw four polar bears, standing on a cliff instead of ice sheets, with a couple feeding on vegetation.
“Scientists had suspected a diet change among polar bears, but this is the first time such a scene has been caught on camera,” Suchada said.
Shrinking ice sheets over the sea has made hunting for seals tougher than ever, and this is driving polar bears – a carnivorous species – to start feeding on vegetation, Suchada said.
“It is not just the polar bears. Many species have started disappearing. We should be more concerned about nature and other species,” Voranop said.
The researchers, who arrived in Bangkok on Sunday, will begin studying the samples from the warmth of their laboratory in Chulalongkorn University.
The study, initiated by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn with support from the Embassy of Norway, the National Science Museum Thailand and Chulalongkorn University, will be wrapped up when a documentary and picture book on the Arctic adventure is released.