An average of 29 microplastic particles per litre of melted snow were found in the Antarctic snow. These microplastics were much smaller than a grain of rice, researchers said. Find out where they could have come from.
In a first, microplastics have been found in freshly-fallen Antarctic snow. The findings published in the Cryosphere journal revealed that these microplastics were much smaller than a grain of rice.
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"We collected snow samples from 19 sites across the Ross Island region of Antarctica and found microplastics in all of these," researchers said in their report.
What the researchers found
An average of 29 microplastic particles per litre of melted snow were found to be present in the Antarctic snow. This figure is higher than marine concentrations reported previously from the surrounding Ross Sea and in Antarctic sea ice.
"Just next to the scientific bases on Ross Island, Scott Base, and McMurdo Station, the largest station in Antarctica, the density of microplastics was nearly three-times higher, with similar concentrations to those found in Italian glacier debris," researchers said.
In the course of the study, the researchers detected 13 different types of plastic — the most common being PET, commonly used to make soft drink bottles and clothing.
Where these microplastics came from?
"Small size and relatively low density" allow microplastics to become airborne and transported over large distances. Researchers said atmospheric modelling suggested that microplastics may have travelled thousands of kilometres through the air.
Back in the lab, the researchers had also found that there were plastic particles in every sample from the remote sites on the Ross Ice Shelf too.
They said these microplastics in Antarctica may have originated from both "local sources and long-range transport."
"Direct sources of microplastics to the Antarctic environment may include fragmentation of plastic equipment from research stations, clothing worn by base staff and researchers, and mismanaged waste," it said.
The researchers said microplastics might have also entered the Antarctic environment via long-range transport by ocean currents, ocean to atmosphere exchange, and both short- and long-range atmospheric transportation.
Threat to climate
The study raises eyebrows as it fuels the findings of other studies regarding microplastics as a "ubiquitous airborne pollutant."
Hinting at a possible climate threat in the Antarctic region, scientists were quoted by PTI as saying that the presence of microplastic particles in the air has the potential to influence the climate by accelerating the melting of snow and ice.
"Deposited microplastics may accelerate the melting of the cryosphere when present on snow and ice in alpine or polar regions... Microplastics may further influence climate by acting as cloud ice nuclei in the atmosphere and through their minor contribution to global radiative forcing," the study said, citing other research works.
"It is incredibly sad but finding microplastics in fresh Antarctic snow highlights the extent of plastic pollution into even the most remote regions of the world," Aves said.
Earlier studies have found that microplastics have negative impacts on the health of the environment, limiting growth, reproduction, and general biological functions in organisms, as well as negative implications for humans.
(With inputs from PTI)