These unsettling pictures show two young polar bear cubs playing with a large sheet of plastic on a remote Arctic island.
The siblings were spotted with their mother on the icy coast of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago about halfway between the mainland and North Pole.
The black plastic stands out against the seemingly spotless landscape as the white-furred creatures paw at it, before putting it in their mouths.
Svalbard is hundreds of miles from continental Europe and has a population of about 2,500, yet researchers navigating the freezing waters found plastic waste wherever they went.
Claire Wallerstein, part of the Sail Against Plastic team, said: “We were very lucky to be invited to take part in this unique expedition, and had an amazing time seeing Arctic wildlife, stunning glaciers and experiencing 24-hour sunlight.
“However, it was also a very sobering experience to see just how much plastic is making its way to this incredibly remote and apparently pristine environment.”
Wallerstein was one of 15 Cornish scientists, artists, filmmakers and campaigners who recently returned from an expedition to the Arctic Circle.
The aim of the trip was to research the impact of plastics on the marine environment just 600 miles from the North Pole.
Claire added: “What we found on the beaches was sadly not so very different from
what we find back home.
“There was plenty of fishing waste, but the saddest thing was just how much of the waste blighting the Arctic is the same old disposable detritus of our daily lives –
plastic bottles, cotton bud sticks, cigarette ends, wet wipes, polystyrene and food packaging.”
The group sailed aboard a tall ship named the Blue Clipper, spending 10 days sampling the sea, air and beaches around the isolated coasts of Svalbard.
Although twice the size of Belgium, Svalbard’s human population is outnumbered by polar bears.
Ironically, one picture captured by the group shows a team member holding a discarded plastic bag with the logo of a polar bear and the word Svalbardbutikken – a supermarket on the island.
The group trawled for microplastics in the water, and large floating plastics.
They also tested the air for microplastic fibres, listened for underwater noise pollution, and did beach cleans.
The team found plastics on beaches at every site they surveyed, including some that must have travelled long distances.
Flora Rendell-Bhatti, a researcher from the University of Exeter, said: “As plastic pollution breaks down it is harder to identify the sources of the fragments and fibres by eye.
“Our microplastic net sampled the surface waters in areas where there is currently little research.
“Once the samples are analysed back in the UK, this data will indicate the levels of microplastic pollution in Arctic waters around Svalbard.”
With currents reaching Svalbard from both the Atlantic and Siberia, debris can arrive from far away.
Local beach cleaners have reportedly found plastic waste traceable even to Florida.
The group said this was inevitably having an impact on Arctic wildlife.
According to the researchers, almost 90 per cent of fulmars – a white seabird related to the albatross – around the island have been found to have plastic in their guts, with an average of 15 pieces per animal.
The team spent a few days in Svalbard’s capital Longyearbyen after the expedition to find out about the initiatives under way to clean up hazardous litter from the island’s remote beaches.
By Ben Gelblum and Tommy Lumby
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