Russian scientists found microplastics along the entire Northern Sea Route

Researchers found especially high amounts in the Barents and Kara seas.

By Amund Trellevik, High North News - September 12, 2019
The Professor Multanovskiy spent the late summer sailing along the entire Northern Sea Route looking for microplastics. The findings are depressing. (Rosgidromet via High North News)

Russian researchers found microplastics all along the Northern Sea Route during an expedition there this summer.

The Russian newspaper Izvestiya this week reports about the findings done during the Transarktika 2019 expedition. The Professor Multanovskiy vessel departed from Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean on August 25, sailing through the Northern Sea Route and to Murmansk, where it vessel berthed on September 8. During the entire voyage, scientists found plastic waste, including bottles and packaging on the ocean surface. However, what worries the scientists are the findings of microplastics.

Both in the Kara Sea as well as in the Barents Sea, large deposits of microplastics — plastic waste that is between 1 and 5 millimeters in size — were found.

“We took a high number of samples and investigated them in the ship’s laboratory. Particles were found in various sizes in all oceans, primarily in the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea. However, we are not yet able to provide specific numbers,” Alexandr Yershov, Assistant Professor at the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources at the Russian State Medical University, told Izvestiya.

The results from the expedition are expected to be ready in about two months’ time. This is the first time ever that samples have been taken of microplastic waste along the entire Northern Sea Route.

The final research results may thus provide vital information about how some of the world’s most inaccessible ocean areas are affected by the global issue of microplastics at sea.

The Northern Sea Route, also referred to as the Northeast Passage, is the name of the sea route between Europe and Asia that runs north of Russia. It is some 5,500 kilometers long.

Using the NSR may potentially reduce travel time from Europe to Asia by two weeks, however, the window of sailing each year is limited to two to four months. On parts of the route, vessels will depend on icebreakers.

The Danish container shipping company Maersk has announced that it plans on using the Northern Sea Route for shipping between Europe and Asia.

The entire route is located in the Arctic and within the Russian economic zone, which stretches out to 200 nautical miles from the state’s coast. Climate changes and ice melting has made the NSR more accessible than before. In 2017, a vessel traveled the NSR without assistance from an icebreaker for the first time ever. According to Izvestiya, 20 million tons of goods were transported through the NSR in 2018, which sets a new record.

Yershov says that the surface pollution the expedition found comes from bottles and waste thrown overboard from ships traveling the Northern Sea Route.

The largest amounts of waste were found in the Okhotsk Sea in eastern Russia, the Tchuktoskiy Sea near the Bering Strait, and also in the Barents Sea.