Members of the Sail Against Plastic expedition on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard witnessed two young polar bears playing with plastic. The series of photographs they took of this incident show the cubs pawing at a piece of black plastic before bringing it up to their mouths. A shocking scene to say the least, which is only the tip of the iceberg.
‘What we found on the beaches of the archipelago is, unfortunately, not so different from what we have at home,’ says Claire Wallerstein, a member of the Sail Against Plastic expedition whose goal is to document the invisible pollution present in the Arctic Ocean. ‘However, it was an illuminating experience to see that plastic is even able to invade such remote areas which have a seemingly pristine environment.’
The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has magnificent landscapes in addition to its ice floe which stretches as far as the eye can see. Located some 2,000 miles from London, the archipelago is home to 3,000 polar bears and is about twice as large as Wales. With the exception of the 9 inhabitants on Bear Island located about 150 miles south, its populace of 2,300 live on Spitsbergen, the only other inhabited island and the largest in the archipelago. Despite the small number of people living there, scientists found plastic wherever they went.
‘There was a lot of fishing waste, but the saddest thing was seeing that the most waste came from everyday life, such as plastic bottles, cotton swabs, cigarette butts, wet wipes, polystyrene and food packaging,’ details Claire Wallerstein to the Daily Mail.
The team of researchers, videographers, artists and environmental activists spent ten days collecting samples from the ocean, air, and beaches of the Norwegian archipelago. On board their vessel, the Blue Clipper, they also dredged microplastics as well as larger pieces floating on the surface of the Arctic Ocean. They also studied the effects of noise pollution off the coast of the archipelago and cleaned up the beaches.
A sobering thought is that the coastline of this ‘immaculate’ archipelago is just as polluted as our European and British beaches, caused by plastic debris from around the world. Studies on fulmars, seabirds that are cousins of the albatross, has shown that 90% of living specimens on the island have ingested plastic in their lifetime, an observation that seems to confirm the sad predictions of a 2015 study which suggested that 99% of seabirds could have swallowed plastic by 2050.
Nevertheless, this is not the first time that the pollution of Svalbard has been in the news. An expedition led by Dutch scientists in May 2017 on the Jan Mayen and Svalbard islands had already highlighted the fact that the region was a real tip, with waste being brought in by the Gulf Stream current.