For the first time, microplastics have been found in freshly fallen ice in Antarctica. The pollutant, the scientists argue, poses a growing threat to the region’s ecosystem and could increase the melting of snow and ice.
Alex Aves, a PhD student at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, collected ice samples from 19 sites in the Ross Island region of Antarctica and found that all contained microplastics. The research was published June 7 in a peer-reviewed article in the scientific journal The Cryosphere.
While microplastics have been found around the world, from the world’s deepest ocean floor to the top of Mount Everest, researchers say this is the first time they have been found in freshly fallen ice in Antarctica.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are tiny plastic debris smaller than 5 mm in length, smaller than a grain of rice.
There are two types of microplastics. Primary microplastics are tiny particles intentionally designed for commercial use, such as in cosmetics, nerdles—plastic pellets used in industrial manufacturing, and fibers from synthetic fabrics such as nylon.
Secondary microplastics are formed from the degradation of large plastic objects such as bottles, fishing nets and plastic bags. It is caused by exposure to the environment, such as radiation from the sun, wind and ocean waves.
How did they reach Antarctica?
The study found an average of 29 microplastic particles per liter of melted snow.
These particles, due to their light weight and low density, can travel in the air from more than 6,000 km away. However, the researchers argued that there is also the possibility that human presence in Antarctica may have created a microplastic ‘footprint’.
Of the 13 different plastic types found, the most common was polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a type of plastic used in everyday items such as clothing, plastic bottles, packaging, etc. PET was detected in 79 percent of all samples.
The most likely sources of airborne microplastics are local research stations, caused by clothing worn by employees, broken pieces of plastic equipment, and mismanaged waste. Compared to more remote sites, samples next to local base camps such as Scott Base and McMurdo Station in Ross Island had much larger concentrations of microplastics (about 3 times higher).
According to the report, wayfinding flags made of synthetic polyamide fabric, which identifies safe routes for travel, may also release microplastics.
Why is this discovery troubling?
This shows that the prevalence of microplastics is so widespread that even the farthest and least habitable places in the world are now affected by these particles.
The presence of these particles can pose a major threat to the specific ecosystem of Antarctica. Microplastics are not biodegradable and once ingested into the environment they tend to accumulate. They can be toxic to plants and animals.
The report claims that ingestion of microplastics by various organisms in the region, from microorganisms such as zooplankton to large predators such as king penguins, can disrupt their normal biological processes and negatively affect the entire Antarctic food chain. Is.
The presence of microplastics in Antarctica may also worsen the effects of climate change. Ice sheets and glaciers are already melting rapidly, and the report suggests that microplastics deposited in ice and snow may be accelerating the melting of the cryosphere – regions where water is in solid form, such as the planet’s north and south poles. .
Darker-colored microplastics, which made up 55% of the samples collected in Aves’ study, are even more harmful than lighter-colored ones, as they are better able to absorb sunlight and retain more heat.
Furthermore, the study shows the ubiquitous presence of microplastics not only in land and water, but also in the air.
When ice travels in the atmosphere, it binds itself to airborne particles and pollutants, which then accumulate on the Earth’s surface. This phenomenon is called “scavenging” and according to scientists is an important way in which microplastics are able to travel and pollute land and water. When transported by snow, rain and wind, they can also pose the risk of possible inhalation of microplastics by humans and wildlife.