Trillions of Plastic Bits, Swept Up by Current, Are Littering Arctic Waters

The world’s oceans are littered with trillions of pieces of plastic — bottles, bags, toys, fishing nets and more, mostly in tiny particles — and now this seaborne junk is making its way into the Arctic.

In a study published Wednesday in Science Advances, a group of researchers from the University of Cádiz in Spain and several other institutions show that a major ocean current is carrying bits of plastic, mainly from the North Atlantic, to the Greenland and Barents seas, and leaving them there — in surface waters, in sea ice and possibly on the ocean floor.

Because climate change is already shrinking the Arctic sea ice cover, more human activity in this still-isolated part of the world is increasingly likely as navigation becomes easier. As a result, plastic pollution, which has grown significantly around the world since 1980, could spread more widely in the Arctic in decades to come, the researchers say.

Andrés Cózar Cabañas, the study’s lead author and a professor of biology at the University of Cádiz, said he was surprised by the results, and worried about possible outcomes.

Fragments of fishing lines found in Arctic surface waters by the research team. CreditAndres Cozar

“We don’t fully understand the consequences the plastic is having or will have in our oceans,” he said. “What we do know is that this consequences will be felt at greater scale in an ecosystem like this” because it is unlike any other on Earth.

Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic gets into the ocean, and scientists estimate that there may be as much as 110 million tons of plastic trash in the ocean. Though the environmental effects of plastic pollution are not fully understood, plastic pollution has made its way into the food chain. Plastic debris in the ocean was thought to accumulate in big patches, mostly in subtropical gyres — big currents that converge in the middle of the ocean — but scientists estimate that only about 1 percent of plastic pollution is in these gyres and other surface waters in the open ocean.

Another model of ocean currents by one of the study’s authors predicted that plastic garbage could also accumulate in the Arctic Ocean, specifically in the Barents Sea, located off the northern coasts of Russia and Norway, which this study demonstrates.

The surface water plastic in the Arctic Ocean currently accounts for only about 3 percent of the total, but the authors suggest the amount will grow and that the seafloor there could be a big sink for plastic.

This particular part of the ocean is important in the thermohaline circulation, a deepwater global current dictated by differences in temperature and salinity around the world. As that current brings warm surface water up to the Arctic, it seems to be bringing with it plastic waste from more densely populated coastlines, dumping the now-fragmented pieces of plastic in the Arctic, where landmasses like Greenland and the polar ice cap trap them.

Scientists aboard the research vessel Tara lower nets into the water to collect plankton and microplastics.CreditAnna Deniaud/Tara Expeditions Foundation

The scientists sampled floating plastic debris from 42 sites in the Arctic Ocean aboard Tara, a research vessel that completed a trip around the North Pole from June to October 2013, with data from two additional sites from a previous trip. They scooped up plastic debris and determined the concentration of particles by dividing the dry weight of the plastic collected, excluding microfibers, by the area surveyed.

Almost all of the plastic, measured by weight, was in fragments, mostly ranging from 0.5 millimeters to 12.6 millimeters. The rest of the plastic appeared in the form of fishing line, film or pellets. This mix of plastic types is roughly consistent with the kinds of plastic that collect in the subtropical gyres, though those parts of the ocean amasses a higher concentration of fishing line.

The researchers did not find many large pieces of plastic, nor did they find much plastic film, which breaks down quickly, suggesting that the plastic has already been in the ocean for a while by the time it gets to the Arctic.

If the plastics were coming directly from Arctic coastlines, it would mean that people in the sparsely populated Arctic were depositing many more times the plastic in the ocean than people in other parts of the world, which is unlikely. Shipping is also relatively infrequent there and, the authors write, there is no reason to think that flotsam or jetsam in the Arctic would be so much higher than in other parts of the world.

The lesson from the study, Dr. Cózar Cabañas said, is that the issue of plastic pollution “will require international agreements.”

“This plastic is coming from us in the North Atlantic,” he said. “And the more we know about what happens in the Arctic, the better chance we have” of solving the problem.


Poll: Most Israelis, Palestinians oppose current bilateral peace plan

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Most Israelis and Palestinians oppose the kind of peace deal that has been under negotiation in the past, a new poll found.

Nearly 60 percent of both Israeli Jews and Palestinians said they were against the permanent status agreement they were presented based on previous Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, according to the joint pollby leading Israeli and Palestinian think tanks. But about a quarter of those opposed would reconsider if the deal were part of a broader regional peace based on the Arab Peace Initiative.

“It is very clear that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians at this point have responded with opposition to the package,” Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, told JTA. “However, we were able to easily change their minds simply by adding the Arab peace component. We got close to 55 percent support for the package when it is an Arab-Israeli peace rather than just a Palestinian-Israeli peace.”

The Palestinian think tank and the Israel Democracy Institute, a leading research center in Jerusalem, surveyed 1,184 Israelis and 1,270 Palestinians, revealing little consensus on the parameters of peace and mistrust and fear of the other on both sides — along with some hope for flexibility.

Some 59 percent of Israelis and 51 percent of Palestinians support a two-state solution to the conflict, the poll found. But a majority of Israelis (57 percent) and nearly half of Palestinians (47 percent) think a majority of their people opposes two states.

“This has far-reaching implications because if you feel you are part of the minority, you will be less outspoken and proactive and confident,” Tamar Hermann, the academic director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research, told JTA. “If you belong to the majority but you believe you are part of the minority, you will act like the minority. It’s a spiral of silence.”

One in five Israeli Jews and one in three Palestinians wants a one-state solution, meaning a single state for Israelis and Palestinians rather than an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Last year, 51 percent of both Israelis and Palestinians supported a two-state solution, according to a similar survey conducted annually by the Palestinian center with the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University starting in 2000.

The peace deal offered in the latest poll provides for a demilitarized Palestinian state, reciprocal national recognition, Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders with territorial swaps, the reunification of 100,000 Palestinians with families in Israel, the division of Jerusalem and its holy sites, and the end of conflict and claims. A multinational force would be set up in the Palestinian state, and Israel would maintain two early warning stations in the West Bank for 15 years.

While 55 percent of Israeli Jews and 59 percent of Palestinians oppose the deal, a minority of Israeli Jews and Palestinians (39 percent) back it, as do 90 percent of Israeli Arabs. Twenty-six percent of those Israeli Jews would be willing to change their mind if the Arab states agreed to peace based on the Arab Peace Initiative, and 25 percent of those Palestinians would do the same if Israel accepted the initiative, which was first proposed in 2002.

There is little trust between Israelis and Palestinians, the poll revealed. The vast majority of Palestinians (89 percent) feel Israeli Jews are untrustworthy, and most Israeli Jews (68 percent) feel that way about Palestinians. A minority of both Israelis and Palestinians (43 percent) believe the other side wants peace, and large majorities on both sides (77 percent of Israelis and 73 percent of Palestinians) think the chance of an independent Palestinian state being established in the next five years is “very low.”

Half of Israeli Jews, 61 percent of Israeli Arabs and 70 percent of Palestinians agree: “Nothing can be done that’s good for both sides; whatever is good for one side is bad for the other side.”

Khalil Shikaki speaking at the conference announcing the findings of the joint poll at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, Aug. 22, 2015 (Courtesy of IDI)

Sixty-five percent of Israelis say they fear Palestinians, while 54 percent of Palestinians say they do not fear Israeli Jews, according to the poll. Israelis and Palestinians tend to perceive each other’s national motives to be much more extreme than they do their own side’s.

Most Israelis (64 percent) and a large minority (43 percent) of Palestinians support mutual recognition of Israeli and Palestinian national identities. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence on such was an obstacle in the last round of American-led Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in 2013-14.

Among both Israelis and Palestinians, religious observance and political leaning are predictive of backing for the proposed peace deal, the poll found. Secular and left-wing Israeli Jews are more likely to be supportive, while more religious and right-wing Israeli Jews are less likely to back the plan. Just 16 percent of Israeli settlers in the West Bank are on board, compared to 40 percent of non-settlers.

Similarly, less-religious Palestinians are more supportive of the deal than are the more-religious, and there is a large difference in support between Fatah and Hamas voters — 57 percent versus 25 percent. Fatah is the political party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas is the Islamist terrorist group that governs the Gaza Strip.

Who should broker peace? A large plurality of Palestinians (44 percent) prefer multilateral negotiations, while a similar number of Israeli Jews (40 percent) prefer bilateral talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinians. Just 18 percent on both sides favor a unilateral approach.

When asked to choose among four potential mediators of talks, an Arab forum of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan was the most popular among both Israeli Jews and Palestinians (26 percent and 22 percent, respectively). All the other proposed options — the United States, the European Union and the United Nations — are acceptable to one side but unacceptable to the other.

“The leadership of an Arab forum is of course interpreted differently by the two sides,” Hermann said. “For Israelis, it means they are jumping over the heads of the Palestinians and negotiating their future with others. [Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor] Liberman is very much in favor of this arrangement. From the Palestinian point of view, as they feel weak in a bilateral framework, they prefer to have a multilateral framework with their big brothers.”

Egypt and France are both pushing initiatives to revive Israel-Palestinian peace talks. Palestinian leaders demand that Israel freeze settlement construction and agree to negotiate based on its pre-1967 borders as preconditions for talks.

Most Palestinians (62 percent) blame the Israelis for the failure of previous rounds of negotiations, while most Israeli Jews (52 percent) blame the Palestinians. U.S. special envoy Martin Indyk, who oversaw the latest failed attempt, reportedly assigned most of the blame to Israel, while the State Department said no one is to blame but “both sides did things that were incredibly unhelpful.”

Analysis: The differences between the current wave of violence and past Palestinian uprisings

Contrary to what some media reports would have the public believe, the current unrest, troubling as it may be, does not echo past Palestinian uprisings. Israel must opt for restraint whenever possible, to avoid playing into Palestinian propaganda.

The recent security escalation is difficult and frustrating. The violent riots, especially those in which protesters clash with Israeli security forces, cast serious doubt on the possibility of peaceful coexistence. Inflammatory headlines and fervent media reports seem to exacerbate the situation by blowing it out of proportion.

Israel is currently facing five different types of security incidents: Terrorist attacks involving firearms, stabbing attacks, violent riots, the stoning and firebombing of vehicles, and attempts to breach the Israel – Gaza Strip border.

Attacks by terrorist cells using firearms have been few, with the brutal murder of a Jewish couple traveling on a Samaria road, and the shooting of passengers on a bus in Jerusalem representing the height of this effort so far.

There has been an increase in the number of lone terrorists carrying out stabbing attacks, as dozens of them have been recorded over the past few weeks. The main cluster of these attacks has taken place in Jerusalem, but the past week has proven that nowhere in Israel, from Afula in the north to Kiryat Gat in the south, is immune.

The majority of incidents left their victims wounded, but the Jerusalem attacks have so far claimed six lives.

The past few weeks have seen mass protests in Judea and Samaria and in other parts of Israel, where hundreds of rioters clashed with security forces while throwing stones and firebombs at them, chanting anti-Israel slogans and burning Israeli flags.

The Palestinian Authority seems to be trying to curb these events in Palestinian cities and across Judea and Samaria.

There has also been an increase in the number of stoning and firebombing incidents targeting vehicles traveling on Judea and Samaria roads, and in smaller numbers on roads adjacent to Arab towns in Israel. The majority of perpetrators in these cases are minors.

Since the recent wave of unrest has begun, there has also been an uptick in attempts by both individuals and groups of Palestinians to breach the Israel – Gaza security fence. These incidents are contained, for the most part, by Hamas. One cannot point to one specific reason as the catalyst that sparked the current unrest, which is most likely the culmination of several unforeseeable factors.

Signs that tensions were reaching a boiling point were evident for a while, most notably over the surge in stoning and firebombing incidents in Jerusalem, which developed into actual attempted murder only over the past few weeks.

The familiar Palestinian theme of “Al-Aqsa is in danger” played a key role in provoking the recent rampage, as did the incessant incitement by the Islamic Movement’s northern branch and by Hamas, which is echoed by the Palestinian Authority.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to view the recent wave of terrorism as the successful result of well-spun incitement. We must review these events with respect to the overall tensions in the Middle East, agitated by radical Sunni groups, and especially the Islamic State group, whose increasing grip on parts of the region has captured the imagination of Palestinian youth.

The growing friction with settlers across Judea and Samaria, the horrific arson attack in Duma whose perpetrators have yet to face justice, and statements by Israeli politicians advocating a change in the status quo on the Temple Mount all affect the Palestinians’ sense of frustration.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ “end of the Oslo Accords era” speech at the UN General Assembly last month has most likely fueled this frustration as well, as has the overall sense of lawlessness on the Palestinian street, now dominated by violence – craving mobs, devoid of any ideology or forethought.

This atmosphere is most prevalent in east Jerusalem, perhaps because the Palestinians living there have no sense of the Palestinian Authority’s rule on the one hand, while on the other hand, Israel’s rule has been eroded and rendered ineffective.

This complexity makes it difficult to predict what tomorrow will bring, but keeping things in perspective is important nonetheless. Firstly, the current situation is clearly very different from the Second Intifada, when, at one point, 122 Israelis were murdered in the span of a single month. Two weeks into the current wave of terrorism Israel mourns seven victims, and while each person is a world unto itself, the difference in the number of victims cannot be ignored.

Secondly, while the Palestinian uprising of the early 2000s was marked by suicide bombers and shooting attacks, the majority of the recent attacks have been lone terrorist incidents and mostly stabbing attacks. This proves that the Shin Bet security agency has got a solid hold on the situation on the ground, which enables it to thwart terrorist plots before they are realized.

The nature of the protests is also different than it was 15 years ago. At the time, Israeli security forces were fending off thousands of Palestinians in each demonstration, while this time the biggest protest so far numbered about 500 people. The same can be said of the Arab protests in Israel.

What sets this wave of terrorism apart from the Second Intifada is that it comprises 95% cold – weapon attacks, and 90% of the perpetrators reside in and around east Jerusalem.

It is important that the current escalation wanes without a Palestinian achievement, especially when it comes to the Temple Mount. We must avoid fueling tensions on the already volatile site, so the government and the police are doing the right thing by limiting access to it. However, once order is restored, the status quo should be resolutely enforced. Israel’s strategy has to make it clear that violence reaps no rewards.

Unlike the Second Intifada, the current wave of violence does not warrant a military operation. We must spare no effort to minimize casualties among innocent Palestinians. A high number of civilian casualties who, while being incited or promoting incitement do not take an active part in acts of terror, will do Israel more harm than good and may even cause the situation to spiral out of control.

As hard as it may be, the delicate balance between exercising force and exercising restraint must tip in favor of restraint. Having said that, counterterrorism measures should be applied unequivocally, and the elimination of terrorists, even those wielding knives instead of firearms, must be unanimously backed by all echelons.

This wave of violence is complex because it involves lone terrorists, who operate independently and without direction, and are driven by social media and the Gaza – based media.

This is a stressful situation that requires patience, endurance and nerves of steel, so to avoid taking the wrong action. We have to make sure to avoid steps that could make tensions boil over. Fanning the flames is not only unnecessary, it is very dangerous.