We’re Turning the Arctic Into a Trash Dump

We’re Turning the Arctic Into a Trash Dump
Photo: Sergio Pitamitz / VWPics, AP

Piles of new trash on Arctic shores, rain in unprecedented places, noises from ships disrupting wildlife: Human influence has made the Arctic unrecognizable from what it looked like even just a decade ago. That’s the verdict of the new Arctic Report Card, which scientists presented on Tuesday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual update on the region at the American Geophysical Union fall conference. Compiled by more than 100 scientists from a dozen countries, this is the 16th report of its kind to document the rapid changes at the top of the globe.

This year’s report chronicles all the weird and disturbing signals that climate change itself is having on the Arctic. But it’s clear from this report that increased human activity in the region as a result of warming is also causing problems.

That includes an unprecedented amount of marine trash inundating the region. In the summer of 2020, communities along the Bering Strait started voicing concerns about unusual trash washing up along the shoreline, covering “miles” of the beach. The trash included not just a large amount of fishing gear, but also a whole bunch of stuff, including toilet bowl cleaners, cans of roach insecticide and muscle relief spray, and Russian, Korean, and Chinese-brand water bottles. These communities documented and cleaned up the trash, even shipping some to researchers in Nome, Alaska, to try and identify who was responsible. The report concludes that an increase in maritime traffic could be a cause. Arctic seas, NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said, “once saw very little marine traffic.” But dwindling sea ice has allowed boats and other types of human activity to increase in the region. Researchers have also chronicled microplastics — tiny particles of broken down plastic and synthetic fibres — on Arctic snow, in waterways, and even stashed in sea ice.

The Arctic Report Card warns that “the Bering Strait region should expect similar or higher levels of marine garbage in the future as industrial maritime ship traffic increases.” Physical pollution isn’t the only threat to the Arctic, though. A separate report released earlier this year by the World Wildlife Fund found that Arctic shipping has also doubled the amount of noise pollution over the past five years alone. That’s causing problems for whales and other wildlife who rely on sound to navigate their habitats.

Though this year’s sea ice minimum wasn’t as extreme as other recent years — it was “only” the twelfth-lowest extent — all 15 of the lowest minimum sea ice extents have occurred in the past 15 years. It was also a relatively “normal” year for ice loss on the Greenland ice sheet. But, Twila Moon, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Centre, whose research focuses on the Greenland ice sheet, said that the summer nevertheless marked some hugely worrying events on the ice sheet. Among the issues plaguing the land ice were three extreme melt events and rain at its summit in August — the first time that’s ever been recorded.

“These extreme events have the potential to make the ice sheet more vulnerable to melt in the future,” Moon said. “Having the physical system experience this new record condition feeds into the future likelihood of these conditions being experienced again.”

These worrying changes don’t appear to be slowing down human activity. If anything, they’re speeding them up and there will soon be more ships and pollution spreading across the region. In February, a Russian icebreaker took a first-of-its-kind trip through six Arctic seas, showing how, thanks to low sea ice, the region is newly navigable year-round. Just a few months after that trip, Russia’s national oil company broke ground on a huge new project in Siberia, made possible only because ships can bring fuels and supplies to the site more easily. That project will lock in more carbon emissions, and, thus, more dramatic changes for the region.

“These physical and human system extreme events share at least one characteristic,” Moon said. “Without direct human action and intervention, we can expect more of them in the future.”