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The acclimation of macro, micro, and nano plastics within the Antarctic environment through the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt, as a result of the thermohaline circulation, from sources across the world has resulted in relatively high concentrations of plastic pollution within Antarctic ecosystems. As a consequence, the health of the flora and fauna within this ecological system are placed at an immense risk potentially resulting in reduced survival, growth, and reproduction within the different species.
This essay will be concerning the Antarctic environment, with a focus on the effects of plastic pollution within this system. The core of this essay will especially revolve around the potential impacts of this type of pollution on the Antarctic flora and fauna. The plastic pollution in reference is of any plastic of a macro (>5mm), micro (1 µm-5mm), and nano (<1µm) size. (Haegerbaeumer et al., 2019). The majority of these plastics have gotten to the Antarctic coastline via the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt which are the currents that circumnavigate the world as a result of thermohaline circulation. These circulating waters transport plastic pollution around the world from their sources to dump this waste in places such as the Antarctic coast. These plastics can then harm organisms living in this environment through a range of methods as discussed in the main body paragraphs.
The durability and long lifetime of plastics in conjunction with the large amounts constantly being dumped into the ocean have led to a significant volume of plastic spread across Antarctica’s oceans. This large volume of plastic is a result of years of mishandling of plastic waste resulting in it ending up in the sea. Two of the major sources of plastic pollution in the ocean are the coastal country’s waste plastic and fishing gear/equipment that has been lost/dumped. Coastal countries created 99.5 million metric tons of plastic waste and contributed an estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of this plastic to the ocean in 2010. (Jambeck et al., 2015). Broken and lost plastic-based fishing gear/equipment enter the sea every year equidistant to over 6.4t. (Li et al., 2016). Even though this number may be relatively smaller than the amount of plastic waste dumped into the ocean by coastal countries, more of this fishing gear/equipment is free to circulate far out at sea sooner. However, it is not just the sheer volume of plastic that is a problem, it is also the number of items of plastic entering the ocean. For instance, a simple 6 kg wash of acrylic fabric could release over 728,000 fibers of plastic into the ocean. (Waller et al., 2017). The significantly large number of micro/nano plastic fibers being released into the ocean makes up for its lack in the size of plastic. These much smaller fibers can more easily pass through filtration systems due to their minimal size and out to sea where their movements cannot be constrained.
A range of different sizes of plastics is relatively easily ingested into the Antarctic food web through a few species. These sizes range from nano to macroplastics and are mainly consumed when mistaken for food by a predator species. A key species in the Antarctic food web is the Antarctic Krill (Euphausia superba). Antarctic Krill have been found in swarms estimated to be up too two million tons in mass and spanning over 450 square kilometers. (Atkinson, Siegel, Pakhomov, Jessopp, & Loeb, 2009). Research done has shown that krill are just as likely to consume nano and microplastics as they are to consume microorganisms during feeding (Lacerda et al., 2019). This key species is consumed by several different organisms within the Antarctic ecosystem; including fish, penguins, and whales. This nano and microplastic waste can move through the food chain into these larger organisms through secondary plastic consumption. Macro plastics can also enter the food chain when mistaken for food by larger organisms such as sea turtles. (“University of Georgia; Micronizing ocean plastics threaten sea turtle populations, ocean life cycle.”, 2018). Even though sea turtles are not a part of the Antarctic ecosystem; the concepts of a larger organism mistaking macro plastics for food such as jellyfish can be applied to marine animals such as penguins that actively hunt jellyfish.
Microplastics can build up within organisms’ systems, potentially resulting in interruptions to their natural internal processes that may lead to a change in their state of life. Long term effects sustained by consuming plastics can result in significant damage to the organism in a range of ways. One example of this is microplastics clogging up the digestive tracts in corals leading to impeded feeding ability. (Hall et al., 2010). The small plastics limit the ability of a coral to feed by preventing the intake of food particles. This obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract can also be observed within marine animals as well as the potential for the track to be physically damaged by the harsh plastics. (Lacerda et al., 2019). Zooplankton is negatively affected by the ingestion of microplastics within its system as well as the acclimation of these plastics in the joints between the external appendages and carapace segments. (Cole et al., 2013). In the first case, the ingestion of microplastics leads to lowered algal feeding (main food source) and potential death. The jamming of the joints between the external appendages and carapace segments with microplastics may lead to limited capabilities in the zooplankton; resulting in issues with movement, ingestion, reproduction, feeding, and evasion of predators. The ingestion of microplastics leads to lowered energy reserves and reduced survival rates (Waller et al., 2017) and is explained as occurring due to the reduction in food consumption due to the feeding on the plastic itself. This reduction in energy intake within primary consumer species can have drastic effects on an ecosystem especially if it leads to an increase in mortality rates within these low trophic species as well as those higher within the trophic levels. A collapse of the populations of the primary consumers will lead to a ripple effect throughout an ecosystem such as the Antarctic environment due to its reliance on a species such as the Antarctic krill.
Macroplastics can become entangled around some aquatic/ amphibious/ terrestrial animals resulting in potentially long-lasting and significant harm to the exterior of the animal. This damage may lead to permanent scarring of external tissues as well as the potential for death as a result of more significant damage being sustained by the animal. The main macroplastics that can lead to entanglement in marine animals are fishing equipment; especially fishing lines and netting. Antarctic marine animals such as sea lions, seals, and sea birds are especially prone to entanglement. Due to the playful and more curious nature of young sea lions and seals (especially juveniles), they are more likely to become entangled within macroplastics than their older counterparts (Li et al., 2016). Sea birds such as penguins can also become entangled in macro plastics, especially during hunting in which macroplastics can easily be mistaken for food (Li et al., 2016). If the animal were to get the macroplastics tightly entangled around one of their appendages; blood flow to that region could be limited significantly enough to permanently mane the animal, or potentially result in the death and decay of that appendage. More concerning; if the macroplastic were to get tightly entangled around the throat of the animal; airflow down into the lungs may be limited, resulting in suffocation of the animal furthermore death.
The acclimation of macro, micro, and nano plastics within the Antarctic environment is having a noticeable negative effect on the survival, growth, and reproduction of the flora and fauna within this relatively fragile ecosystem. All of the ranges of plastic sizes found in Antarctica’s waters are harmful to the native wildlife, both from the ingestion of and entanglement in the plastics. A large amount of research into how the plastics have reached the Antarctic landmass, as well as the effects on the organisms that live in and around its waters, has been done. However, much more research into how we can limit our plastic pollution traveling from around the world, into this ecosystem is required if we are to protect this precious and iconic environment. The plastic pollution in the Antarctic environment is an important issue that needs to be solved if we wish to protect it.
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