Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago halfway between the Nordic country and the North Pole, is known as much for its rugged beauty as its remoteness. From the village of Longyearbyen, visitors and around 2,400 locals can appreciate the rugged terrain around the fjord known as Adventfjorden.
But the beauty of this arctic cove hides microscopic and messy secrets.
“People see this lovely clean white landscape,” said Claudia Halsband, a marine ecologist in Tromso, Norway, “but that’s only part of the story.”
The fjord has a big problem with the subtle wastes, namely microfibers, a corrugated subset of microplastics that shed man-made fabrics. Microfibers are popping up everywhere, and among researchers there is growing recognition that wastewater helps spread them, said Peter S. Ross, an ocean pollution scientist who has studied the plastic that fouls the Arctic. While the precise impact of microfibers accumulating in ecosystems remains a matter of debate, the tiny Longyearbyen expels an extraordinary amount of it into its wastewater: new study shows village of thousands emits about as much as all microplastics emitted by wastewater treatment. near Vancouver which serves approximately 1.3 million people.
The findings, published this summer in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science, highlight the hidden impacts that arctic communities can have on surrounding waters, as well as the major microfiber emissions that can be produced even by small populations from the waters. untreated waste.
The microfibers from Adventfjorden arrive through a submerged pipe that juts out into the fjord like an arm bent at the elbow. He spits out untreated community sewage – urine and feces, as well as porridge pushed down kitchen sinks and foam from showers and washing machines. Around the world, small and isolated communities compete for wastewater in many ways, from locking it in septic tanks to using composting latrines. In Longyearbyen, the waste mixes in a single pumping station no larger than an outhouse before flowing into the fjord through tubes coiling atop the frozen earth.
“People think, out of sight, out of mind; the ocean will take care of it, but that stuff is piling up, ”Dr Halsband said.
Curious about the waste that is not immediately visible to the naked eye, Dr Halsband and four collaborators sampled the wastewater for microfibers for a week each in June and September 2017, then modeled how the tiny pieces might float around the fjord.
“It wasn’t as smelly as we feared, but there were floaters,” said Dorte Herzke, a chemist at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research and lead author of the article.
Back in the lab, the researchers filtered and sorted the samples. Due to a lack of equipment to identify the fibers as synthetic or organic, the team rejected any clear or white element that could be cellulose. Still, dozens of pieces remained, including dark colors likely from outdoor equipment – especially in the September samples collected “when hunters start to emerge” and regroup, Dr Herzke said. . (Previous research has found that outerwear such as synthetic fleece tends to wash out microfibers in washing machines.)
From these counts, the researchers estimated that the community dumps at least 18 billion microfibers into the fjord each year, or about 7.5 million per person.
To begin to understand what happens to the pieces in Adventfjorden, the team modeled where microfibers might collect and what species might encounter them. The researchers calculated that the lightest microfibers would stay suspended near the surface and leave the fjord within days, dispersing into larger waters. The heavier ones would sink to the bottom or cluster near the sewer pipe or the inner shore, places that are habitats for plankton, bivalves and blood red worms.
Deonie and Steve Allen, married microplastics researchers at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland and Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, praised the journal’s model and said in an email that its “data from truly local and timely field and sampling “reinforce its results. But they said it would also benefit from a chemical analysis, a sentiment shared by Sonja Ehlers, a microplastics researcher at the University of Koblenz-Landau in Germany. Ms Ehlers said she would also like to see the team document how local creatures interact with microfibers.
Dr Halsband suspects they might be consuming the waste. “We know they don’t discriminate against plastic,” she said, adding that the team also wants to know if fibers can rumble on plankton’s appendages and interfere with their drift.
Researchers returned to the fjord last summer, collecting samples to verify the model’s predictions. These samples are in a freezer and will be submitted for chemical analysis.
Scientists hope their work will inspire Arctic communities to think about new ways to deal with the sewage and waste that hitchhikes through them.
“Norway has a lot of fjords,” Dr Herzke said, and Adventfjorden surely isn’t the only one strewn with dung and tiny garbage. This makes it a useful case study. “Once we understand this one,” Dr Herzke added, “we can understand others.”
When extensive wastewater treatment is not possible, Dr Halsband said, communities could consider basic filtration, promote alternatives to wool over synthetics, and avoid more wear between washes.
As for Longyearbyen, researchers said it will soon introduce filtration to capture large debris. It can also intercept smaller pieces – maybe even very small ones.