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Microplastics found in the remote Vatnajokull glacier

In a new study led by Reykjavik University, scientists have found microplastics in the remote and pristine area of Europe’s largest ice cap, the Vatnajokull glacier in Iceland.

It is not yet understood how microplastics may affect the melting and deformation of glaciers. This means they could potentially influence future meltwater and sea level rise. 

Microplastics have never been found in the vicinity of the Vatnajökull glacier before. The team used optical microscopy and μ-Raman spectroscopy to detect and identify various sizes and types of plastic particles. 

So far, most studies on microplastics have been focused on ocean pollution, and little research has been conducted to investigate plastic in the Earth’s polar ice caps. Microplastic particles have been found in the Italian Alps, the Ecuadorian Andes, and in icebergs at Svalbard. 

Study first author Dr. Hlynur Stefansson is an associate professor at the RU Department of Engineering. She said that it is of vital importance to understand the distribution of microplastic, as well as its short and long term effects on ice dynamics.

The findings of the study confirm that microplastic particles are carried and distributed through the atmosphere. 

“We do not understand well enough the pathways for microplastic particles in our environment. Is the plastic carried by snow and rain? We need to know more about the causes,” said Dr. Stefansson.

She noted the the samples the team collected are from a very remote and pristine location in Vatnajokull glacier, with no easy access, so it is unlikely the site was directly polluted by human activities.

“We also need to know much more about the short and long-term effects of microplastic on the dynamics of the ice and if they contribute to the melting of glaciers. If that is the case, it will play a critical role in future meltwater contribution to the oceans and rising sea levels.”

Dr. Stefansson explained that the plastic particles degrade very slowly in the cold glacier environment, and can accumulate and persist in the glaciers for a very long time. 

“Eventually, however, they will be released from the ice, contributing to pollution in rivers and the marine environment. It is therefore very important to map and understand the presence and dispersal of microplastics in glaciers on a global scale.”

The study is published in the journal Sustainability.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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