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Microplastics (MP) is one of the most current research topics for many scientists around the world and also at the Department of Ecology at the University of Innsbruck. APRI board member Dr. Birgit Sattler has been researching microplastics in the Alps for quite some time. We, Sebastian Pohl and Max Kortmann, are at the beginning of our scientific careers and had the idea to broaden the view on microplastics and to do research on them in the Arctic, because there is hardly any land-based data from there yet. The goal is to prove that MP can get to all places in the world, no matter how remote. Waste in general and climate change are among the very big challenges of the coming decades. For a long time, we had the feeling that climate change was the main topic of discussion, but that the problem of waste was given secondary consideration. Due to various legislative changes in the EU and also in Austria, awareness of this is currently increasing, which is an important development.

Research objectives

Too little is known about the dangers that MP can cause. The big problem with MP is certainly that it is not degradable. The life cycle begins, for example, when washing clothes, passes through the sewage treatment plant from which it is not filtered and thus enters the waterways and finally the oceans. On this way it is eaten by e.g. fish together with the plankton. The MP remains in the fish, the fish ends up on our plates or is eaten by other animals. Thus MP is in a very long cycle in which it remains. Unfortunately, we also drink MP particles from a plastic bottle, which means that it remains in us. To date there is no exact data on this and whether MP is responsible for or involved in diseases or allergies. First researches show that MP causes deformations and/or displacement of the mouth parts of zoobenthos (the habitat of animal inhabitants at banks and at the bottom of waters) and thereby these animals can eat no more. More important for humans, especially in the context of pandemics, is that microorganisms living on MP can more often exhibit antibiotic resistance. MP thus serves as a “vector” for so-called “antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs)”.

Planning & Organization

Since there is already a lot of research on MP pollution in the ocean, but almost no data on pollution of Arctic inland glaciers, we decided to do this. Along sections where Arctic glaciers discharge into the sea, we wanted to study terrestrial MP pollution, the distribution pathways of particles, and the effects they have on living organisms in the cryosphere. These data could provide a picture of the possible dispersal pathways of MP particles before they reach the ocean. How MP gets onto Arctic glaciers is not yet clear. Our assumption is that atmospheric input is an important factor and that animals that ingest MP from the ocean subsequently excrete it over land. Investigating this question, as well as whether microbial communities have already adapted specifically to plastic as a habitat, was the real motivation for our expedition.

Route of the TOPtoTOP Arctic Research Expedition 2020 & 2021.

In the course of organizing, which started in the summer of 2019, we suddenly faced the problem that we could not travel abroad as planned due to the Corona Pandemic. The original plan was to spend four weeks in Svalbard in the summer of 2020 to collect data. We therefore had to decide to postpone our research trip by one year, but this gave us more time to organize. In the spring of 2021, we finally came across the TOPtoTOP- Global Climate Expedition (hereafter: TOPtoTOP), which was looking for volunteers. After a few meetings, we decided to change our stay abroad. By working with TOPtoTOP, we got the opportunity to travel in a climate-friendly way because they were traveling through the Arctic in a sailboat and could take us with them. It also allowed us to get to very remote places to firstly study the spread of microplastics independent of human influence and secondly to get a comprehensive picture of the Arctic habitat because we were able to get to Svalbard, Jan Mayen, Greenland and Iceland from Norway. However, we now had to be prepared to be on the road for eight weeks instead of four, and to have a much higher financial outlay.

We spent the next months between February ’21 and June ’21 to find the financial means which were necessary to be able to accomplish this expedition. The costs included a proportional financing of the boat and the food on the boat, travel to Norway and departure from Iceland, and due to the COVID pandemic costs for the accommodation in a hotel for the purpose of quarantine (as well as the resulting 10-day time loss). Due to the advanced time, many of our applications for research funding had already been rejected. Fortunately, however, we were able to raise all the necessary funds by the time our trip began.

Here we go!

For us, the climate or environmental friendliness of our research has a high priority. Therefore, we had planned to travel to Norway by train. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic threw a spanner in the works. Therefore, we had no other choice but to travel by plane. Since Norway had strict entry regulations, which were changed frequently, it was not sure until we received permission to enter the country, whether we could carry out our expedition as planned. At the border, we were also denied entry at first, because as students we would not have permission to enter the country. We were finally able to convince the local officials that we were entering as scientists on an Arctic sailing expedition and not as students. We had to go immediately to the appropriate quarantine hotel in Oslo to spend our 10-day quarantine.

Sunbathing on the lawn in front of the Quarantine Hotel in Oslo.

Due to the good COVID infection figures in Austria, we were allowed to travel to a hotel of our own choice already on the third day, where we had to spend the rest of the quarantine. We therefore traveled to Lyngseidet and were accommodated there in the Magic Mountain Lodge. We were told by the health department that we were free to move around during the quarantine as long as we had no contact with other people. Shopping for food was an exception, but we were instructed not to go to a store every day. We provided ourselves with the food we needed and were able to avoid having to go shopping on a regular basis. We used the time in quarantine to work on our social media channels, keep in touch with funders, write with interested parties about our expedition, sort out our equipment, and explore the lovely landscape.

After a total of 10 days in quarantine, we were finally able to board the TOPtoTOP ship. We spent another 2 days in the harbor stowing our equipment on board, buying food for several weeks and getting the ship ready to sail. The ship “Pachamama” is a 15 m long sailboat made of aluminum. The crew initially consisted of Dario and Sabine Schwörer, their 4 children: Vital (3), Mia (5), Alegra (10) and Noé (11), the two of us and Peder Pedersen, a photographer and filmmaker from Lofoten. The Schwörer family has been traveling around the world by sailboat for a good 20 years because they wanted to take action against the backdrop of rapidly increasing climate change. Dario, a professional mountain guide, and Sabine, a trained nurse, wanted to travel around the world “by fair means”, i.e. with muscle power and wind energy, climb the 7 highest peaks and talk to people from all cultural backgrounds, but especially children, about climate change and do awareness and educational work. This project then became the TOPtoTOP Global Climate Expedition. Currently, they were stationed with the ship in Norway to explore the Arctic in the next few years. The two oldest children Andri (14) and Salina (16) live in Switzerland to finish their schooling. So on June 17, 2021, we set sail from Lyngseidet. Shortly after the start we noticed that there were problems with the auxiliary engine. Since Dario and Sabine could not immediately find out where exactly the problem was, we had to anchor in a bay for several days until the problem was fixed. Since the glacier Strubpbreen was right nearby, Max and I took the opportunity to already collect first samples. We needed two attempts because it rained heavily the first night we were on the mountain, which made sampling impossible. Since it never gets dark in Norway at this time of year, we were able to be out at night.

First stop: Svalbard

After the problem with the engine was fixed, we started again towards Svalbard. The crossing lasted four days. The crossings from study area to study area were always very similar. Since there was no data to collect on the high seas for our research, our task was to help on board. We had alternating two-hour watches and four-hour rest periods, during which we mostly slept. During our watches, we had to keep an eye on the sea, look for other boats on the radar, watch the weather, and see that the boat stayed on course. I (Sebastian, note) was fine with the seasickness, I didn’t notice anything. Max was a little queasy and slightly nauseous at times at the beginning of strong seas, but it always kept within limits. The accupressure bracelets that are sold everywhere in Norway (Seaband) also helped well. Due to the constant swell, we were often very tired, had little appetite, and were also apathetic. Going ashore, although the land was “always swaying”, was already a very nice feeling.

We finally reached Svalbard and were able to dock in the harbor in Ny Alesund. The very next day we went out into the field to do our sampling on Austre Lovenbreen after receiving a short shooting course the night before. Fortunately, we got a lift from one of Norsk Polarinstitutet’s speedboats, which took us to Kittiwake Population 8km outside Ny Alesund. Since we were now in polar bear habitat, we had to carry a rifle, which made the climb up to the glacier as well as the sampling even more difficult. Field work was cold and tedious. In order to minimize microplastic contamination of our samples, we wore cotton overalls and cotton gloves during sampling and had to pay attention to wind direction and route choice, as it is hardly possible to climb glaciers without equipment made of material with plastic content (high tech clothing, rope, snowshoes, climbing harness, shoes, etc.). We always had to have the rifle handy with an eye on our surroundings. As we entered the fog in the glacier, we quickly decided to continue ascending and were rewarded with clear blue skies from 400hm. We climbed a steep gully with ice axe and crampons and enjoyed the phenomenal wide view over the seemingly endless glacier fog world below us. For sampling, of course, these were also perfect conditions. In total, we were in the field for 16 hours that day until we made it back to Ny Alesund.

However, there was no time to rest for long, as we had to get the boat ready to go quickly due to the matching tide in order to move on. At the beginning we had to keep ice watch because it was foggy and there were icebergs floating around in these waters. After a few hours we reached the next, our northernmost survey site, Brokebreen. The day in the field was shorter here with 9 hours, but due to the short resting time to the previous study site it was not less exhausting. In particular, the abundance of snow combined with the warm temperatures gave us a hard time, as we fell more than waist deep into snow holes between boulder debris several times. However, being on a glacier where perhaps a few thousand individuals have been in human history, surrounded by hundreds of kilometers of ice and snow, was an impressive feeling that overrode the hardships. While we were collecting our samples on the glacier, TOPtoTOP was taking samples for their research in the ocean, and we were able to meet back in the bay after the sample collection was completed. The Schwörer family cooperates with ETH Zurich and therefore continuously took water samples to analyze for e-DNA. To collect the samples, water is sucked out of the sea using an electric pump and passed through a filter for 30 minutes. The filter contents are then analyzed at ETH. In addition, they took MP using a manta net. This was lowered into the water at the same time as the pump and also dragged along for 30 minutes. Afterwards, the collection container was emptied into a steel can and this was forwarded to the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences and Norwegian Research Center- NORCE for analysis.

Afterwards we sailed further north to reach the pack ice limit, because we had hoped to be able to take some samples from there as well. Unfortunately, we could not find any pack ice due to heavy fog and turned back south at about 80° north latitude.

Back to Norway

Before we left Svalbard to make our way back to Norway, we headed for Longyearbyen. We spent a total of two days there because the swell on the open sea had increased due to very strong winds. We used this time to collect samples on Longyearbreen. Unfortunately, we were not so lucky with the weather that day. Arriving on the saddle of the glacier, an icy wind was waiting for us, which at times swept around our ears with gale-force winds. In addition, more and more clouds came up and finally it began to rain and snow. Despite these conditions we tried to take samples as good as possible, which was not possible anymore, especially with the air sampler, because both the device and the filters are sensitive to humidity. Soaked and frozen through we came back to the city after many hours. There we could thankfully take a hot shower at a friend of the Schwörer family and recover briefly. However, since we also wanted to take samples from the river directly in Longyearbyen, we finally had to get into our wet clothes again before we could finally put on something dry on the boat and go to sleep.

After about a week at sea, we again reached the port in Lyngseidet from which we had started. We were able to use the time we spent there to replenish our supplies and send the samples we had collected so far to Austria. Unfortunately, the Airsampler had started to give problems and we had arranged for a new battery for the instrument to be sent to us. Unfortunately, we were not able to receive the new battery because we had to leave at short notice due to the weather conditions. However, we were able to visit UIT during a stopover in Tromso where a technician was able to provide us with a new battery. A big thanks to Reidar Kaasa and Emily Venables! The replacement battery worked fine, even though we had to stand in the cold at the investigation site for a longer time, because the air sampler could no longer provide the full flow rate: instead of 125 l/min, we could only work with 40 l/min. And that then took an eternity and was “bloody cold”.

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Photos: ©Max Kortmann und Sebastian Pohl

About the scientific authors

Written by Max Kortmann and Sebastian Pohl, University of Innsbruck

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