The trash that ends up in the ocean has become a vehicle for the transportation of exotic marine life into new ports. This is threatening global biodiversity, particularly in the Southern Ocean.
David Barnes of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) made a 10-year study of human litter, mostly plastic, that washed ashore on 30 remotes islands, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. His team found that litter has almost doubled the spread of alien species in the subtropics and more than tripled it at high latitudes.
Since the creation of plastics over 50 years ago, floating litter has provided floating barges for marine organisms such as bryozoans, barnacles, polychete worms, hydroids and molluscs, increasing their opportunity for dispersal to new areas. Many seem to prefer plastics to hitching a ride on natural matter such as volcanic rock, pumice and wood.
Barnes and his team are investigating the potential impact of this litter on Antarctica’s native marine animal life. The predicted temperature increase in the Southern Ocean over the next 100 years will weaken Antarctica’s natural barrier, which currently freezes out alien species. The first warning signs will be seen at the most northerly Antarctic islands. BAS marine biologist David Barnes says, “If freezing seawater temperature is the main barrier to alien organism invasion of Antarctica, polar warming could lessen this constraint. Some native Antarctic marine species appear to be very sensitive to even a small temperature increase. If alien species enter the region they have the capacity to drastically and irrevocably change these ecosystems.”
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