Article image

Microplastics found for the first time in Antarctic fresh snow

A research team led by the University of Canterbury in New Zealand has found microplastics in fresh Antarctic snow for the first time. By collecting samples from 19 sites in Antarctica, the experts identified an average of 29 microplastic particles per liter of melted snow – a sufficient quantity to pose significant threats to the health of this continent’s delicate ecosystems and accelerate the melting of snow and ice. 

Microplastics – tiny plastic fragments released from artificial clothing fibers, broken-down consumer products, and other sources – are currently ubiquitous on our planet. Previous research has discovered traces of microplastics almost everywhere, from the deep oceans to the peak of the Mount Everest, and even in the blood of humans and other animals. 

While in Antarctica microplastics were already identified in sea ice and surface water, this is the first time they have been reported in fresh snowfall. Among the 13 different types of plastics that the researchers identified, the most common one – present in 79 percent of the samples – was polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is mostly used in manufacturing soft-drink bottles and clothing.

According to the experts, the most likely origins of these airborne microplastics are clothing and equipment from local research stations. However, analyses suggest that some of the particles may have travelled through the air from more distance locations, up to 3,700 miles away. 

“Microplastics can have harmful substances stuck on to their surfaces such as heavy metals or algae,” said study co-author Laura Revell, an associate professor of Environmental Physics at the University of Canterbury. “So they can provide a way in which harmful species can make it into some remote and sensitive areas, that otherwise wouldn’t get there.”

“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,” added study lead author Alex Aves, a PhD student at the same university.

Although the full range of effects microplastics have on health and the environment are not yet properly understood, previous studies suggest that they can be toxic for plants, animals, and humans, leading to allergic reactions and even cell death. Moreover, since they are highly efficient in trapping radiation emitted by the Earth, they can exacerbate climate change. Thus, in order to safeguard our planet and its diverse ecosystems, actions to curb plastic pollution are urgently needed. 

The study is published in the journal The Cryosphere.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day