Ric and Abi Horobin aren’t your average Northern tourists.

The couple, who visited from the United Kingdom, originally planned to spend three weeks canoeing in Canada’s North.

Abi Horobin, left, and Ric Horobin stand outside their cabin at Inuvik’s Arctic Chalet after completing their canoe expedition.
Samantha McKay/NNSL photo

But Ric Horobin, a hydrogeologist and water resources expert for UK environmental consultancy Arcadis, realized it was a perfect opportunity to do a little bit of research into microplastic levels in Canada’s Northern rivers.

Horobin’s brother-in-law works for the University of Hull, who partially funded the study, and pointed out the lack of research into the levels of microplastics in mostly-untouched environments.

“We got to talking, and we realized a lot of the research that’s being done is on rivers that are heavily polluted like the Indus, the Ganges, a lot of the far East Asian rivers,” said Horobin. “What’s not well understood is if that exists everywhere. We don’t know if there is microplastic contamination in what should be pristine environments. On the basis of that, I suggested that it might be interesting to look at sampling for microplastic as we went down the rivers.”

Ric Horobin, front, and Abi Horobin take a selfie during their canoe expedition.
Photo courtesy of Ric Horobin

Microplastics are small pieces of plastics, less than a few millimeters in length, which can cause harm to aquatic life.

“A lot of the really microscopic bits of plastic comes from the breakdown of bigger stuff like bottles … and the wear of tires,” said Horobin. “It is a problem for marine invertebrates, but what’s really not known is whether microplastic contamination is a problem for humans.”

The Horobins began their expedition in McClusky Lakes, Yukon, canoeing down the Wind River to the Peel River, where they eventually took the Mackenzie River to Inuvik.

“The premise of the expedition was, ‘can we find nothing?'” he said. “We want to demonstrate that there still places out there that are clean.”

Horobin said they collected water and mud samples from all along the rivers and will take them back to the UK for testing.

A photo of the Ric and Abi Horobin’s canoe on the Upper Wind River, shot on a drone.
Photo courtesy of Ric Horobin

Part of their expedition was to ensure they were reducing their own environmental impact as much as possible. They also hoped to pick up and properly dispose of any trash they found along the way.

“Quite regularly, when we stopped, we’d find small pieces of plastic. As we came further down stream, we didn’t see anything on the river until we got 100 km outside of Fort McPherson, then we started to see bits of plastic all over the banks,” said Horobin. “Beyond there, everyday we saw pieces of plastic everywhere. If we’re seeing lots of pieces of plastic from the canoe, there’s probably a lot more plastic that we’re not seeing.”

Horobin said they did their best to pick up as much as possible, but added that cleaning up the rivers could be an expedition all on its own.

“We could have spent days picking up rubbish on the side of the river. We did the best we could … you can’t stop and pick up absolutely everything, it’s just too much,” he said. “I’m not criticizing anybody for it, because it’s not about that. It’s simply about demonstrating that this is a problem.”

Horobin is completing this study as an ambassador for Big Blue Ocean Cleanup, a global non-profit that aims to clean up oceans and coastlines around the world.

He said once the samples are tested and the results are in, he will be writing a report on their findings and sharing it with interested local organizations.

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