Aquamess: Portraits of Garbage from the Top of the World

Of all the garbage we collected in the extreme north, the most unexpected pieces were children's toys. I wanted to imagine the high Arctic as pristine, with endless white vistas. Yet on beautiful forlorn shores of Svalbard, Norway's Arctic archipelago, we spotted our remnants - a mustard bottle, a cigarette lighter, a slipper, an asthma puffer, and plastics galore. In Svalbard's most remote lands you see more polar bear paw prints than human footprints - but you also see our human synthetic waste.


Carol Devine

Garbage reaches even where few humans dare, from the Arctic Circle to the Southern Ocean [1] at the opposite end of the world, and everywhere in between [2]. In early 2015 National Geographic estimated a shocking 5.25 trillion pieces of garbage in the oceans [3], including "four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer littering the deep sea" [4].


In Svalbard, 112 volunteers from 18 countries converged to join a travel adventure company dedicating half of its voyage to helping "Cleanup Svalbard" from August 28-September 1, 2015 [5]. We hailed from Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands, India, the UK, Israel, and Scandinavia, to mention a few. On this first civilian cleanup run by a tour company in collaboration with the Governor of Svalbard [6], we picked up garbage on designated shores, recorded data, and brought it back to Svalbard's capital Longyearbyen for disposal and recycling. While picking up garbage, I collected pieces to take home. I then photographed the trash, noted its provenance, and created Aquamess [7], a survey of garbage we found in Svalbard. These cleanup efforts are a small but crucial contribution: according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), plastic marine debris is mobile, it comes in many forms, it affects all our health and safety (even tiny plants), and it can hurt animals [8].

Carol Devine

Our first clean up stop was at Raudfjord, or “red bay”, named for the iron-rich sandstone tinting the soil. The mountains were snow dusted and capped. Moss campion and mountain sorrel added a few dots of color to the landscape from afar. From the ship we couldn't see any garbage, but once on shore we could see it everywhere in small blue, white, green, red bits of plastic, plastic net pieces, larger discarded plastic bottles, buoys and packing crates from the fishing industry. What’s notable is how fine some the plastic is – fractured into bits by water, rocks, time. These small pieces are dangerous as birds and other wildlife mistake it for food and whales scoop it up while feeding.

Carol Devine

A blue shovel, a doll’s head, a toy gun, a tiny pig: all plastic and eerie. We found them in the white snow and grey-brown sand beaches on Svalbard's uninhabited and northernmost islands. Some toys we found on Phippsøya looked vintage, weathered by time; others appeared more recent.  These toys were eerie because they were not anthropological remnants of an ancient playground, but had floated there mysteriously from perhaps Russia or Europe. Near Svalbard, the ocean flows via the North Atlantic Current (the last drops of a branch of the warmer Gulf Stream) and the Arctic Ocean cold surface waters rotate in an east-west pattern around the polar ice cap in the Beaufort Gyre and the smaller Barents Gyre. Some water flows through the Bering Strait from large rivers in Canada and Russia [9].


Our trash scatters across the earth's map, entangling wildlife and dissipating into our planet’s water molecules [10]. Microplastics are an emerging concern for sea life and human health with the transfer of toxins through the food web [11] There's fast-growing evidence that plastics harm marine mammals causing fish to starve, birds to be weighed down [12] and animals to be trapped in nets as reported in the Svalbard Post newspaper:

“Old nets, yarns and ropes are an obvious death trap. An animal that gets its antlers or an ear tag snared into the large and heavy materials are at risk of suffering a protracted and painful fate. It nearly happened last year when a bear was found with about 170 kilograms of fishing net clinging to its head.” [13]

Plastics literally take ages to degrade: at minimum 10 years, and at worst 500 years or more [14]. Only recently did we learn that plastics are likely arrive to the Arctic from the UK within two years, with a known deleterious effect on animals that consume them [15].

Source: NOAA

Ultimately, the garbage "portraits" of Aquamess are a survey about people. Somewhere, a person eats Chinese noodles, another smokes British tobacco, drinks Russian vodka, uses Norwegian fishing rope; their discarded and lost packaging washes up on shores of the most northern islands on earth. Over four days and some 10 nautical miles we picked up 13.5 cubic metres of garbage including 3.5 cubic metres of plastic nets. Aquamess is about making the problem visible: could the floating blue piece of garbage from the Arctic Circle have new life and meaning through the power to deter pollution?

Carol Devine

In November 2017, the Canadian Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa will include the physical Svalbard garbage I collected in an exhibit devoted to oceanic science and health. Four images of food product packaging discovered on Svalbard shores will be included in a group exhibition at the New York Hall of Science Art Inspires Science: Food [16] in September 2016. Perhaps the tangible experience of how far garbage travels and its detrimental impact on ecosystems will inspire some reflection on our interactions with trash. Cutting back on trash, opting for reusable items, recycling, joining efforts to clean up public places, and keeping storm drains free of trash are actions that can make a difference [17].


Fortunately, there are inspiring innovations and initiatives tackling marine pollution. Companies are manufacturing alternative biodegradable fishing nets [18] and organizations such as Parley for the Oceans [19] are urging prevention of and intervention with the plastics problem. The UN Environmental Program Honolulu Strategy [20] proposes a framework for a comprehensive and global effort to reduce the ecological, human health, and economic impacts of marine litter. The recent news of the results of CFC bans [21] on the ozone hole in Antarctica is encouraging. Hopefully, increased knowledge and citizen action will make a difference, and I urge for responsible proactive governance and collaboration too.


I am honoured to have visited Svalbard and it makes me appreciate the poles, all I have, and how less is more.  We have no choice but to clean up our act.


Carol Devine, MSc
Guest Contributor


Carol is a global and earth health activist. She's a member of Association of Polar Early Career ScientistsSociety of Women Geographers, Humanities and Social Sciences Expert Group (HASSEG) of Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research and Linking Tourism & Conservation. Carol has a MSc in political science from The University of London, UK and is one of 78 women on Homeward Bound, an all-female scientist expedition to Antarctica in December 2016, a leadership and strategic initiative that aims to enhance the influence and impact of women in science to ensure the sustainability of our beautiful planet @caroldevine


[1] "Plastic debris reaches Southern Ocean, previously thought to be pristine." The Guardian. 27 September 2012

[2] "What happens to plastics in the ocean?" Plastinography. University of New South Wales Australia Australian Research Council Centre of Climate System Science. Web.

[3] Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Marine Litter. Web. 26 October 2015.

[4] "Plastic waste dumped in UK seas 'carried to Arctic within two years'". The Guardian. Web. 5 July 2016.

[5] "Plastic debris reaches Southern Ocean, previously thought to be pristine." The Guardian. 27 September 2012

[6] " The Svalbard Environmental Protection Act." The Governor of Svalbard. 12 July 2012.

[7] Aquamess Portraits of garbage at the top of the earth: Clean it. Carol Devine. May 2016.

[8]  "Ten Things You Should Know About Marine Debris." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 3 September 2014.

[9] "Arctic Ocean Currents." National Earth Science Teachers Association Windows To The Universe. Web. 26 January 2011. "Arctic Ocean Circulation." Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Web.

[10]  "Marine Litter." United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) Global Partnership on Marine Litter. Web. "Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans." Greenpeace International. Web. 2 November 2006.

[11] Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Marine Litter. Web. 26 October 2015.

[12] "Plastic waste dumped in UK seas 'carried to Arctic within two years'". The Guardian. Web. 5 July 2016.

[13] "Piling up trash in Svalbard." Svalbardposten. Web. 24 July 2015.

[14] Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Marine Litter. Web. 26 October 2015.

[15] "Plastic waste dumped in UK seas 'carried to Arctic within two years'". The Guardian. Web. 5 July 2016.

[16] "Food." Art & Science Collaborations, Inc (ASCI) 18th Annual International Art-Sci Exhibition. New York Hall of Science. Web. 

[17] "Ten Things You Should Know About Marine Debris." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Web. 3 September 2014.

[18] "Biodegradable Fishing Nets Could Help Rid The Ocean of Ghost Fishing." Conservation Magazine. Web. 18 March 2016.

[19] Parley for the Oceans. Web. 

[20] The Honolulu Strategy: A Global Framework for Prevention and Management of Marine Debris." NOAA and UNEP. Web. 2 May 2011.

[21] "Remember the Ozone Hole? Now There's Proof It's Healing." National Geographic. Web. 30 June 2016.