An 'Incredibly Sad' Find Buried in Antarctic Snow

Scientists have discovered first reported microplastics there
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 9, 2022 8:58 AM CDT
Updated Jun 12, 2022 4:35 PM CDT
A Grim First in Newest Discovery of Microplastics
Stock photo of an Antarctic snowscape.   (Getty Images/goinyk)

Microplastics have turned up in some of the most remote places of the globe: in the skies above the Pyrenees, in the deepest parts of the ocean, even in Antarctic surface water and sea ice. Now, however, scientists have found particles for the first time in another part of the Antarctic: in freshly fallen snow. According to a new study published in The Cryosphere journal, researchers from New Zealand's University of Canterbury gathered up snow samples from 19 different sites across the volcanic Ross Island and IDed microplastics—described in a release as tiny particles "much smaller than a grain of rice" that result from the erosion of plastic materials—in every one of the samples.

The scientists say the melted snow contained an average of 29 particles per liter. More than a dozen different types of plastic were identified, though PET (polyethylene terephthalate, used in soft-drink bottles and clothing) was by far the most common type—it was found in nearly 80% of the samples. Although the scientists note in the study that the microplastics most likely originated from nearby scientific research stations—including from "fragmentation of plastic equipment from research stations, clothing worn by base staff and researchers, and mismanaged waste"—"modeling shows their origin could have been up to [3,700 miles] away," says study co-author Alex Aves, per the BBC.

These "long-range transport" microplastics could be carried to places like the Antarctic in wind, ocean currents, and dust from Australia, Patagonia, and even the Northern Hemisphere. The recent find concerns scientists for multiple reasons, including that microplastics can cause health issues in humans and, because things like algae can cling to them, introduce new harmful species to far-flung areas of the Earth. They may even exacerbate global warming: Dark-colored particles absorb more sunlight and speed up the heating process. "It's incredibly sad," Aves says in the release, though study co-author Laura Revell says she's "not at all surprised," adding: "From the studies published in the last few years we've learned that everywhere we look for airborne microplastics, we find them." (Microplastics have already been found in Arctic snow.)

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