Floating marine debris in Arctic and temperate Northeast Atlantic waters

Melanie.Bergmann [ at ] awi.de


The amount of floating plastics at the surface of the oceans was estimated as 5 trillion pieces and they are known to accumulate in subtropical gyres, enclosed basins, or coastal margins. However, our knowledge about concentrations of floating marine debris in vast stretches of the open ocean is limited, especially in remote geographic regions such as the Arctic Ocean. To fill this gap, we conducted a vessel-based surface observer programme (visual surveys) in the Northeast (NE) Atlantic from waters off the Iberian Peninsula to the Central Arctic between 2015 and 2020, with a focus on Arctic waters. Marine debris experts, trained scientists from fields other than pollution or non-professional citizen scientists recorded the amount of floating debris from the moving ship during times of daylight and sufficient visibility. Spatiotemporal variations among regional seas (Central Arctic, Barents Sea, Greenland Sea, Norwegian Sea, North Sea) and oceanic regions (Arctic waters and the temperate NE Atlantic) were explored based on the findings of 276 visual surveys covering a total length of 4,793 km and an area of 47.35 km2. Plastics accounted for 91% of 1,149 anthropogenic items observed on 191 transects. Other types of anthropogenic items included glass, timber, metal, paper, organic waste (3%). The median debris concentration ranged from zero to 356 items km-2. In Arctic waters and in the temperate NE Atlantic Ocean, the median concentrations across all years were 11 items km-2 each. The median concentration was highest in the North Sea with 19 items km-2 and zero in the Central Arctic due to the high number of debris-free transects above 80th latitude. However, during the remaining visual surveys, large aggregations were observed, indicating that the Central Arctic is not entirely free of floating debris. In other Nordic seas, the median concentration ranged from 9 to 13 items km-2. The regional seas and oceanic regions did not show statistically significant differences in concentrations, indicating a common supply by a northward transportation of floating debris. A high fraction of undefined plastic fragments characteristic to distribution in remote regions suggested extensive weathering of floating items during the long passage at sea. Clear seasonal differences were observed with higher debris concentrations in summer than in autumn and spring, which could be due to increased touristic and maritime activities in the absence of sea ice in summer. A significant correlation between the debris distribution and salinity, chlorophyll a, air and water temperature, wind speed and the distance to the nearest point at the European coastline explained partly the variability of the observations. Overall, Arctic waters were characterized by similar pollution levels as temperate waters highlighting that remote Arctic ecosystems face threats from plastic pollution, which add to the effects of rapid climate change.

Item Type
Conference (Talk)
Primary Division
Primary Topic
Helmholtz Cross Cutting Activity (2021-2027)
Research Networks
Publication Status
Event Details
7th International Marine Debris Conference, 18 Sep 2022 - 23 Sep 2022, Busan, South Korea.
Eprint ID
Cite as
Tekman, M. B. , Gutow, L. and Bergmann, M. (2022): Floating marine debris in Arctic and temperate Northeast Atlantic waters , 7th International Marine Debris Conference, Busan, South Korea, 18 September 2022 - 23 September 2022 .

Add to AnyAdd to TwitterAdd to FacebookAdd to LinkedinAdd to PinterestAdd to Email

Research Platforms

HE > 440-459 > 451
PS > 101
PS > 105
PS > 107
PS > 108
PS > 99

Edit Item Edit Item