Microplastics discovered in fresh Antarctic snow for the first time

David Merron Photography | time | Getty Images

Scientists have discovered microplastics in fresh snowfall in Antarctica for the first time, highlighting the extent of global plastic pollution, as even the most remote regions are contaminated.

Researchers from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand collected snow samples from 19 different sites at the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica and found plastic particles there, according to a report published this week in the journal Cryosphere.

Most of the particles came from a type of plastic called polyethylene terephthalate, which is found in clothing and water bottles. The study found an average of 29 particles per liter of melted snow, higher than previously reported marine concentrations in the surrounding Ross Sea and Antarctic sea ice.

When the Ph.D. from the University of Canterbury. Student Alex Aves traveled to Antarctica in 2019 to collect snow samples, “we were optimistic she wouldn’t find microplastics in such a pristine and remote place,” Associate Professor Laura Revell said in a communicated.

At the time, there was little research on the presence of microplastics in the air, and scientists did not yet know the extent of the problem. After Aves’ discovery, Reve said that “looking back now, I’m not surprised at all.”

“From published studies over the past few years, we’ve learned that wherever we look for airborne microplastics, we find them,” Reve said.

Microplastics are pieces of plastic smaller than a grain of rice. They are harmful to environmental health and can lead to limited biological and reproductive functions in organisms. Microplastics can also exacerbate climate change by accelerating the melting of snow and ice.

The researchers suggested that the microplastics found in the snow samples could have traveled thousands of miles through the air. But they said it’s just as likely that human presence in Antarctica has established a microplastic “fingerprint”.

“It’s incredibly sad, but the discovery of microplastics in fresh Antarctic snow highlights the extent of plastic pollution in even the most remote parts of the world,” Aves said in a statement.

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