Tackling plastic pollution in the arctic

A sailing expedition to tackle plastic pollution in the arctic

In 2019 Narwhal will be voyaging into the frozen arctic of Svalbard with six adventurous and ocean loving crew onboard. Their mission to investigate, tackle and share the issues affecting this remote part of our global ocean system. During the expedition the crew will be undertaking measurements of a number of key indicators of ocean health, collecting valuable data in areas so remote that little data currently exists. Over the next few weeks we will give you an insight into the projects that the crew will be undertaking. 

Phytoplankton research

Measuring phytoplankton abundance using a secchi disk

Measuring phytoplankton abundance using a secchi disk

Photo plankton are small organisms that love in the oceans. They might be tiny in size but they are hugely important. These microscopic organisms photosynthesise just as plants on the land do, turning energy from the sun into energy that other organisms can digest. Across the world phytoplankton photosynthesise as much energy as plants, providing a vitally important food source that underpins the ocean food web. Phytoplankton can be effected by many factors including the temperature of the ocean. Measuring plankton concentrations can tell scientists a lot about the health of the ocean. 

What we will be doing: The crew onboard Narwhal will be measuring plankton using the ‘secchi disk’ technique and reporting their findings back to the University of Plymouth for analysis.

Marine debris monitoring

Removing floating marine debris from the ocean

Removing floating marine debris from the ocean

Sailing across the Barent’s Sea and around the waters of Svalbard, the crew of Narwhal will be voyaging through areas of the ocean that are seldom visited never mind surveyed, but this doesn’t mean that they are out of the reach of human impact. The Gulf Stream, a vast oceanic current known for it’s role in bringing warm waters from the equatorial regions to the coasts of Europe continues north bringing not just warmer water put also ocean pollutants and plastic debris to the high arctic.

What we will be doing: As part of the University of Georgia Marine Debris Tracker project, the crew of Narwhal will be identifying and logging the GPS positions of all the floating debris they encounter during their voyage. Currently there is very little data on the extent of the problem of marine plastic pollution in the arctic, the teams data will help to provide concrete evidence which can be used to inform policy decisions such as restrictions on single use plastic.

Microplastic sampling sailing expedition

Counting ‘nurdles’

Counting ‘nurdles’

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic, less than 5mm in size which we are learning are circulating throughout our oceans. Worryingly these small pieces of plastic are being ingested by organisms living in the ocean and so are making their way up the food web. Animals at the top of the food chain such as whales and dolphins are particularly effected as they accumulate these toxins in their fatty tissue throughout their lives. Based in Scotland this is particularly close to home for us as the west of Scotland resident pod of orca are now no longer able to produce viable calves due to the effects of plastic toxins. The cold, northern waters around Svalbard are a rich feeding ground for whales during the summer months, with many animals making migratory journeys of thousands of miles to feed there.



What we will be doing: The crew of Narwhal will be using a trawl net to sample the ocean around Svalbard for microplastics. Their data will allow scientists to determine how micro plastics might be impacting on the wildlife of the arctic and help us make better decisions on how to protect them.

Marine mammal surveying

Orca sighting during marine mammal surveying

Orca sighting during marine mammal surveying

The arctic waters around Svalbard are a vital feeding ground for a number of marine mammal species including, orca, beluga, walrus, ringed and bearded seals and polar bears. We know that these species are susceptible to changes in ocean temperature as well as the presence of plastic pollution. By monitoring their numbers and distribution we can help scientists to understand more about how these species are faring and get an indication of ocean health as a whole.

What we will be doing: The crew of Narwhal will be conducting ‘Effort based surveys’ of marine mammals as Narwhal sails through the arctic waters. All sightings will be recorded and submitted to international whale monitoring databases. The crew will also be on stand by with cameras, aiming to get dorsal fin and tail fluke shots of any whales. Fins and flukes are unique to each whale, just like finger prints, enabling the movements and activities of individuals whales and pods to be tracked. Whilst sightings are frequently recorded near the coasts and in popular or populated areas, data from the remote oceans that Narwhal will be sailing will be particularly valuable.

Arctic beach litter surveying

Beach cleaning in the arctic

Beach cleaning in the arctic

We are all becoming increasingly aware of the issue of litter washing up on our beaches. Our 2018 Clean Up The Arctic Expedition was an eye opener for me as to how much of this pollution is reaching remote arctic beaches. The Gulf Stream, a vast oceanic current known for it’s role in bringing warm waters from the equatorial regions to the coasts of Europe continues north bringing not just warmer water put also plastic and other debris to the high arctic. Currently there is very little data on the extent of the problem of marine plastic pollution in the arctic, the teams data will help to provide concrete evidence which can be used to inform policy decisions such as restrictions on single use plastic.

What we will be doing: The crew will be undertaking beach cleans and surveys in remote beaches in the arctic only accessible by boat. The litter will be collected and removed but also classified using internationally recognised protocols. This will enable the data collected by Narwhal’s crew to be used worldwide.