The Effect of Plastic on Environment of Antarctica

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Plastic has been traversing across the oceans for the past four decades (Andrady, 2011). The accumulation of plastic in the Antarctic region, however, has only been recognised by scientists in 2008 (Barnes, Walters, & Gonçalve, 2010). With a rising population, the percentage of plastic making its way into the ocean through direct input or surface runoff is increasing (Derraik, 2002). Pollution in the Antarctic region is causing detrimental effects on the fauna and flora species and is degrading the aesthetic appeal of the environment. The different categories of plastic pollution, the source, and transportation of plastic, and the current and future implications they can cause are all key factors that affect the health and sustainability of Antarctica's flora and fauna species.

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There are three main categories of plastic pollution classified by size. Macroplastics are large particles of plastic that have a surface area greater than 25 millimetres. Macroplastics are usually found floating across ocean surfaces due to their large size to weight ratio. Microplastics are small pieces of plastic debris that are not visible to the human eye (Andrady, 2011). Nanoplastics are plastic particles that have a surface area less than 100 nanometres across (Koelmans, Besseling, & Shim, 2015). Due to the small dimensions of micro and nano plastics, scientists incur difficulty in detecting these particles in organisms (Derraik, 2002). Hence measuring their accumulation in remote locations such as Antarctica is challenging.

The transportation of plastic into the Antarctic region originates either directly or indirectly. Direct integration of plastic into Antarctica is through tourism, fishing, or from scientific research stations. There are three types of tourism in Antarctica; cruises on ships, flights over the continent, and land-based expeditions. During 2006, the total amount of cruises taken was by tourists was 45,000. The majority of ships 33,000, landed onshore. Even though tourists may not intentionally aim to litter, loose particles on clothing, unsecured plastic equipment, and carelessness can cause plastic pollution. The sheer number of people that visit the remote location is increasing and thus leaving a bigger footprint on the environment and ecosystem. Commercial fishing vessels are also contributors to plastic pollution. On westward-facing shores of sub-Antarctic islands lie plastic pollution of fishing activities (Gregory, 2009). This plastic pollution consists of netting, rope, and monofilament lines discarded or broken during ventures (Gregory, 2009). The last direct contributor to plastic pollution in the Antarctic region is the result of scientific research. Even though a greater number of tourists visit Antarctica than scientists, the total number of person-days spent in Antarctica by scientists far exceeds the number by tourists. This increases the opportunity for scientists to pollute plastic into the region as they have greater contact with it. Lost equipment to intense winds and transportation errors degrade the Antarctic landscape with plastic pollution.

Indirect integration is a result of the migration of animals, winds, or currents. Many different animals migrate to Antarctica to breed. Among these animals are birds and whales. Migratory animals 'accidentally facilitate and catalyse the global distribution of plastic through bio-transportation (Kühn, Rebolledo, & Franeker, 2015)'. As Antarctica's exposure to plastic is low due to Antarctica, animals often encounter more plastic pollution when they migrate into other regions. Therefore on the return journey to Antarctica, animals have a higher amount of plastic pollution in their system. The ingested plastics are either excreted into the Antarctic region, feed to offspring, or passed up the food chain. The winds and current circulating Antarctica play a pivotal role in reducing plastic pollution in the region. Earth axis rotation influences the winds and currents around the poles. In the southern hemisphere, the Coriolis force acts to the left of the direction of movement. This force aids the circumpolar winds and currents which isolate Antarctica. With the strong circumpolar winds and currents flowing around Antarctica, there is a low opportunity for external winds and currents to reach the Antarctic region. The Brazil, Agulhas, and the east Australian current are the only inlets below 30 degrees south. Therefore any plastic transported through the wind or oceans into the Antarctic region must enter through one of these channels. There are many different ways pollution can reach the Antarctic region. If scientists, fishermen, and tourists can reduce their plastic while in the Antarctic region, and individuals can restrict the amount of plastic entering the waterways and wind current then the effects on the flora and fauna species will be reduced.

The introduction of plastic into the Antarctic region degrades the aesthetic appeal of the continent. Antarctica can be described as a clean untouched landscape. This perception of Antarctica will change if plastic pollution continues to make its way onshore. Antarctica has a unique niche of organisms with many endemic species. Plastic pollution in the future may play a pivotal role in their existence. Therefore it is paramount to keep to plastic pollution in the Antarctic environment to a minimum.

Plastic pollution into the Antarctic region has significant effects on the flora and fauna species. Plastic pollution directs water, introduces new biota, and bring disease upon fauna species. Plastics create channels allowing water movement either to or away from plants (Rilling, Lehmann, Yang, & Abel de Souza Machado, 2018). These channels can either be beneficial or detrimental to the survival of Antarctic plants, as most plant species require water to sustain themselves. Plastic pollution causes the introduction of alien fauna and flora species. The introduction of alien biota into the Antarctic region threatens the endemic species and vulnerable communities (Sul, et al., 2011). With increases in plastic production, it is conceivable that the drifting plastic is transporting alien species to the Antarctic region (Gregory, 2009). These alien species kill endemic wildlife either directly or indirectly. As well as carrying biota into Antarctica, plastics also carry bacteria and viruses. These diseases can spread and annihilate groups of flora individuals. This reduces genetic diversity among species which can result in extinction or loss of individual life. The reduction is not limited to that one species. All other organisms within the ecosystem which are reliant will also be heavily affected, consequently creating a snowball effect. These individuals are not just limited to plants, predators of the plants or those that find shelter within the flora will be affected.

The varying sizes of plastic can affect Antarctica fauna in different forms. Plastics particles can be tangled around organisms, ingested, or create disease within. Macroplastics often cause entanglement and obstruction in animals. Animals are drawn to plastic debris thinking its prey or are accidentally entangled (Gregory, 2009). The unfortunate animals tangled in plastics struggle to escape often die from strangulation, injury, drown, starve, or face general debilitation (Gregory, 2009). In 1976 four to six percent of the Antarctic fur seal population was killed as a result of plastic entanglement (Derraik, 2002). However, plastic is also unfortunately consumed by organisms. Consuming plastics is a health issue for organisms. Ingestion of large plastics causes wounds, skin lesions, and blockages of the digestive systems (Gregory, 2009). These injuries restrict the organism's quality of life and increase the likelihood of death by starvation, predators, and toxic chemicals. Animals are likely to starve as blockages in the digestive system restrict the total amount of food they can consume. Likewise, their ability to avoid predators is reduced as plastic contains toxic chemicals which interfere and cause general debilitation of the organism.

Ingested plastics are more dangerous when consumed by chicks. A study by scientist confirmed that chicks which consumed plastic regurgitated by parents had a mortality rate of 90% (Derraik, 2002). This is because their immune systems are not developed and require the nutrients to grow and function properly. At a young age, chicks are unable to regurgitate the plastic which causes blockages in their digestive tract, they have also not built the resilience to manage the toxic interference. Toxic interference is most prominent in nanoplastics due to their large surface area to density ratio (Koelmans, Besseling, & Shim, 2015). Nanoplastics potentially cause the most damage to ecosystems. Zooplankton, which resides at the bottom of the food chain, can consume these plastic particles. The plastic is then passed up the food chain, affecting all organisms which consume the zooplankton. Once inside organisms, these toxins harm tissue, release chemicals and attract other pollutants. The chemicals released, BPA, flame retardant, and phthalates harm internal organs. The degradation of internal organs reduces the quality of life and decreases reproductive success among organisms (Gregory, 2009).

In conclusion, the three different categories of plastic make their way to Antarctica either directly or indirectly. Direct transportation of plastic into Antarctica is through tourism, fishing, or from scientific research stations. Indirect integration is a result of the migration of animals, winds, or currents. Plastic degrades the environment of Antarctica by harming endemic organisms and reducing the aesthetic appeal. Plastic in the Antarctic region affects the fauna by directing water, introducing new biota, and bringing disease. The plastic affects the fauna species in multiple ways. If ingested plastic causes wounds, skin lesions, and blockages of the digestive tract (Gregory, 2009). If plastic is entangled around the organism they often die from strangulation, injury, drowning, or starvation (Gregory, 2009). Therefore it is important to restrict the flow of plastic into the Antarctic region.

Reference List:

  1. Andrady, A. L. (2011). Microplastics in the marine environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 62(8), 1596–1605.
  2. Barnes, D. K., Walters, A., & Gonçalves, L. (2010). Macroplastics at sea around Antarctica. Marine Environmental Research, 70(2), 250–252.
  3. Derraik, J. G. (2002). The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 44(9), 842–852.
  4. Gregory, M. R. (1991). The hazards of persistent marine pollution: drift plastics and conservation islands. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 21(2), 83–100.
  5. Gregory, M. R. (2009). Environmental implications of plastic debris in marine settings—entanglement, ingestion, smothering, hangers-on, hitch-hiking and alien invasions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1526), 2013–2025.
  6. Koelmans, A. A., Besseling, E., & Shim, W. J. (2015). Nanoplastics in the Aquatic Environment. Critical Review. Marine Anthropogenic Litter, 325–340.
  7. Kühn, S., Rebolledo, E. L. B., & Franeker, J. A. V. (2015). Deleterious Effects of Litter on Marine Life. Marine Anthropogenic Litter, 75–116.
  8. Rilling, M. C., Lehmann, A., Yang, G., & Abel de Souza Machado, A. (2018). Microplastic effects on plants. New Phytologist, 223(2), 1066–1070.
  9. Sul, J. A. I., Barnes, D. K. A., Costa, M. F., Convey, P., Costa, E. S., & Campos, L. S. (2011). Plastics In The Antarctic Environment: Are We Looking Only At The Tip Of The Iceberg? Oecothlogia Australis, 15(01), 150–170.  

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