Plastic litter in the oceans has been a problem for decades, and one that has become worse over time. Now, scientists have verified for the first time that some of that litter has been making its way into the Arctic Circle, specifically in the Fram Strait between East Greenland and Svalbard.

Scientists on the bridge of their ship, coordinating with helicopters, counted 31 pieces of floating litter in 2012. That may not sound like a lot, but bear in mind, this is litter seen from 18 meters above sea level and higher, meaning that these were only the largest of possible pieces. It is widely known that plastic breaks down in the sea and that smaller pieces sink or are eaten by wildlife, meaning that seeing that much large litter means there are more smaller pieces.

pile of various plastic garbage

In fact, plastic has been showing in the stomachs of Greenland sharks and northern fulmars, seabirds that live their whole lives over the ocean and eat food on the surface. Surveys of the bottom of the ocean in the Arctic Circle have also shown a higher than expected level of litter as well.

It’s possible that this litter is simply moving north from elsewhere in the ocean, but it might also be spread there by a forming garbage patch in the Berants Sea. This would be the six such garbage patch, a huge collection of garbage stuck in one spot by ocean currents. It might also be coming form fishing boats and cruise liners, which are venturing further north as Arctic sea ice melts.

For now, we’ll need some more studies, but luckily, looking for litter is easy. The researchers behind this study want other scientists who are already out and about in the Artic Circle, to keep track of litter that they see floating on the ocean. Hopefully, we can figure out where it’s coming from, and stop it from building up any more.