Mapping microplastic pollution in the Arctic, a region with few records

The problem

Approximately 10 million tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans each year. And 200 million tons of these same plastics are already in the oceans.

Microplastic pollution of surface waters is only one aspect of a much larger phenomenon – ocean plastic pollution – affecting all of the world’s seas. The scientific community is just beginning to understand the extent of this problem and the associated challenges to maintaining the good ecological status of marine ecosystems.

In order to consider solutions to this multiform ecological disaster, reliable quantitative and qualitative data are still needed.

Acting at the source? Yes, but which source? Limiting losses along rivers, in cities? Changing our mentalities and our consumption patterns?

One thing is certain: the global production of plastic shows no sign of abating. To date, humans have generated more than 8 billion tons of plastic.


A still poorly known pollution

Millions of tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans every year. This waste breaks down into small particles ranging in size from millimeters to micrometers. These particles that accumulate in marine ecosystems have possible adverse consequences on biological life including human health through their accumulation in the food chain. Understanding the long-term behavior of microplastics in the environment and the associated health risks remains a challenge for the global scientific community.

The project in brief

The Micromegas* program, in partnership with the Oceaneye association, aims to measure the concentrations of plastic pollution in a region of the world far from large urban centers but which is no less affected by this global scourge.

All along the tour of the Arctic, it consists in taking regular samples of surface water to evaluate the content of microplastic particles (from 0.3 to 5 mm in size) as well as meso plastic (greater than 5 mm).

The samples collected are sent to Oceaneye for analysis and exploitation of the results. The objective of Oceaneye is to map plastic pollution in different regions of the world.

* The name was inspired by Voltaire’s tale and refers to the idea of “micro-waste” carrying “mega stakes”.

Oceaneye is a non-profit association, based in Geneva, which participates in the collective awareness of water pollution by plastics, its causes and effects and contributes to scientific research by conducting campaigns of collection and analysis of samples of surface water of the oceans.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are all types of plastic fragments smaller than 5mm. These particles can be the result of a natural degradation process of a larger plastic debris (a drink bottle for example) or intentionally produced in this form. This is the case of microfibers found in modern clothing or microbeads widely used in the cosmetics and hygiene industry.

The most visible plastic pollution, in the form of macro-waste, is that which affects the coasts. The pollution of surface waters by micro-waste is beginning to be the subject of numerous field study campaigns such as the one conducted jointly by the Pacifique Foundation and the Oceaneye association around the world from 2015 to 2019 as part of The Ocean Mapping Expedition.

But field data remains patchy and highly disparate from ocean to ocean, and almost non-existent in the Arctic. Even less is known about the pollution of the ocean floor, where 60% of plastics are concentrated, particularly in the form of micro-particles resulting from the progressive fragmentation of macro-waste or originally produced in this form, as is the case of plastic microbeads widely used by the cosmetics industry.

Similarly, we still know little about the behavior of plastic and how certain particles aggregate chemical elements present in the oceans. With what consequences on the food chain?

Video: discover the Micromegas program

What impact on our health?

Plastic is chemically very stable and could fragment to a size small enough to enter the cells of the bloodstream. Although the consequences of this pollution on human health are still not well known, it is known that exposure to plastic pollution and its accumulation in the body could produce long-term negative effects.

Sampling methodology.

Methodology of sampling.

Oceaneye’s experts separate the organic elements from the plastic particles and then sort them according to their size and type: fragments, thin films, threads, foams and pellets. The analyses allow to determine the concentrations of microplastics according to the geographical zones.

By means of a spectrogram, they can also determine the chemical composition of each element and make hypotheses on its origin.

Several hundreds of surface water samples must be collected all along the tour of the Arctic Ocean. They will constitute an unprecedented trace as they deliver their results.

Responsible for the project


Pascal Hagmann,
Oceaneye director

The Geneva-based association Oceaneye has been a partner of the Pacifique’s expeditions since 2015. It implemented its plastic pollution mapping program on board the sailboat Fleur de Passion as part of the four-year round-the-world voyage in the wake of Magellan. It then extended this same program on the Mauritius as soon as it started sailing in 2016.

Oceaneye’s mission is to fight against the pollution of the seas by plastic waste by contributing to scientific research and public awareness. Its action is mainly focused on the evaluation of surface plastic pollution. Oceaneye collaborates with a network of volunteer sailboats to obtain samples from various regions of the world.


The Micromegas program is intended to provide information to the scientific community as a whole and to its experts working on the modeling of the dynamics of the distribution of plastic pollution.

The results of this new campaign in the Arctic will be transmitted to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in order to be freely accessible by the scientific community. In 2021, the Pacifique Foundation through its partnership with Oceaneye has become a contributor to the GRID-Geneva database, a body specialized in the collection of scientific data directly linked to the United Nations.

Several Oceaneye partner researchers have benefited from the data produced during the world tour led by Pacifique.

unep logo-fondation pacifique
Logo GRID Geneva black-fondation pacifique