New Zealand researchers located in Antarctica have recently identified tiny pieces of microplastic in freshly fallen snow. These can be toxic to plants and animals from the area.
According to researchers microplastics could accelerate snow and ice melting, posing a serious threat to the unique ecosystem of the desolated continent. Microplastics have already been found in Antarctic sea ice, however this is the first time they have been reported in fresh snowfall.
This research has been conducted by University of Canterbury PhD student, Alex Aves, and supervised by Dr Laura Revell. The article can be found in the scientific journal The Cryosphere.
According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the European Chemicals Agency, microplastics are fragments of any type of plastic that is less than 5 mm in length.
These cause pollution as they enter natural ecosystems and harm animals and plants. They come from several sources, including clothing, food packaging or industrial processes. As plastics take hundreds and even thousands of years to degrade, they break down into smaller pieces, becoming a higher risk of ingestion and accumulation in the bodies of organisms.
These can segregate toxic chemicals, and although there is still little evidence on the effect of microplastics on the human body, there is a need to understand the potential toxicity of these particles in the environment. This is because recently it has been found that microplastics have a toll on human cells.
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For this research Aves collected snow samples from the Ross Ice Shelf in late 2019 in order to determine whether microplastics had been transferred from the atmosphere into the Antarctic snow. At the moment, few studies on this topic had been conducted in Antarctica.
Although the research team was optimistic on not finding microplastics at the remote location, they were surprised with the results. Plastic particles were found in every one of the 19 samples from the Ross Ice Shelf.
“It’s incredibly sad but finding microplastics in fresh Antarctic snow highlights the extent of plastic pollution into even the most remote regions of the world.” -Alex Aves
With this recent research, plastic pollution has been located in the most extreme environments of the world. From the summit of Mount Everest to the depths of the ocean, there are traces of plastics all over the world.
These are inadvertently eaten or breathed into our bodies, causing damage to our bodies. Aves has found an average of 29 microplastic particles per litre of melted snow, a much higher number than marine concentrations surrounding the Ross Sea ice had found. The samples taken immediately next to the scientific bases on Ross Island, Scott Base and McMurdo Station had nearly three times as much as those of remote areas.
This could be an indicator that the presence of humans worsens the situation of microplastics in pristine and remote locations. The most common plastic found was PET, the plastic commonly found in soft drink bottles and clothing.
If this was not enough, prior research done by Revell has shown that microplastics that are trapped in the atmosphere gather radiation emitted by Earth, and this contributes to climate change. This is because dark microplastics found in icy surfaces could absorb sunlight and lead to warming.
Researchers are still learning more about the impact of plastic pollution, but so far they warn that, “it’s not very good”.
Last photograph by Lucy Howells