TINY pieces of plastic have been found in the ice cores drilled in the Arctic by a US-led team of scientists, underscoring the threat the growing form of pollution now poses to marine life in even the remotest waters on the planet.

The researchers used a helicopter to land on the ice floes and retrieve the samples during an 18-day ice breaker expedition through the Northwest Passage, the hazardous route linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

''We had spent weeks looking out at what looks so much like pristine white sea ice floating out on the ocean,'' said Jacob Strock, a post graduate student researcher at the University of Rhode Island, who conducted an initial onboard analysis of the cores.

''When we look at it up close and we see that it's all very, very visibly contaminated when you look at it with the right tools - it felt a little bit like ''a punch in the gut,'' Strock told Reuters by telephone.

Strock and his colleagues found the material trapped in ice taken from Lancaster Sound, an isolated stretch of water in the Canadian Arctic, which they had assumed might be relatively sheltered from drifting plastic pollution.

The team drew 18 ice cores of up to two meters in length from four locations, and saw visible plastic beads and filaments of various shapes and sizes.

The scientists said the findings reinforce the observation that micro plastic pollution appears to concentrate in ice relative to water.

''The plastic just jumped out in both its abundance and its scale,'' said Brice Loose, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island and chief scientist of the expedition known as the Northwest Passage Project.

The scientists dismay is reminiscent of the consternation felt by explorers who found plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean's Marianas Trench, the deepest place on Earth, during submarine dives earlier this year.

The Northwest Passage Project is primarily focused on investigating the impact of manmade climate change in the Arctic, whose role as the planet's cooling system is being compromised by the rapid vanishing of summer sea ice.

But the plastic fragments - known as micro plastic - also served to highlight how the waste problem has reached epidemic proportions.

The UN estimates that 100 million tons of plastics have been dumped in the oceans to date.

The researchers said the ice they sampled appeared to be at least a year old and had probably drifted into Lancaster Sound from more central regions of the Arctic.

The team plans to be subject the plastic they retrieved to further analysis to support a broader  research effort to understand the damage plastic is doing fish, seabirds and large ocean mammals such as whales.

Funded by the  National Science foundation and the Heising Simmons Foundations in the United States, the expedition in the Swedish icebreaker   The Oden  ran from July 18 to Aug 4, and covered some 2,000 nautical miles. [Agencies]


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