Antarctica is believed as a pristine, relatively untouched place. However, a new study contradicts this concept, reporting the presence of microplastics in freshly fallen Antarctic snow for the first time.
The presence of microplastics has negative impacts on environmental health. It can potentially influence the climate by accelerating snow and ice melting.
The discovery sheds light on a serious threat to the Antarctic.
As part of Gateway Antarctica’s Postgraduate Certificate of Antarctic Studies, University of Canterbury Ph.D. student Alex Aves collected snow samples from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica in late 2019. There had been few investigations into the prevalence of microplastics in the air at the time, and it was unclear how prevalent the issue was.
Associate Professor in Environmental Physics Dr. Laura Revell says, “When Alex traveled to Antarctica in 2019, we were optimistic that she wouldn’t find any microplastics in such a pristine and remote location. we asked her to collect snow off the Scott Base and McMurdo Station roadways so she’d have at least some microplastics to study.”
Once returning to the lab, it was clear that plastic particles were present in every sample taken from the Ross Ice Shelf‘s distant locations.
Aves said, “It’s incredibly sad but finding microplastics in fresh Antarctic snow highlights the extent of plastic pollution in even the world’s most remote regions. We collected snow samples from 19 sites across the Ross Island region of Antarctica and found microplastics in all of these.”
Associate Professor Revell says, “Looking back now, I’m not surprised. From the studies published in the last few years, we’ve learned that everywhere we look for airborne microplastics, we find them.”
A chemical analysis technique called micro-Fourier transforms infrared spectroscopy was used to identify the type of plastic particles present. The plastic particles were observed under a microscope to determine their color, size, and shape – all-important observational information for future work.
Scientists found an average of 29 microplastic particles per liter of melted snow. This is higher than marine concentrations reported previously from the surrounding Ross Sea and in Antarctic sea ice.
The density of microplastics was roughly three times higher around the research stations on Ross Island, Scott Base, and McMurdo Station, Antarctica’s largest station, with quantities similar to those observed in Italian glacier debris. PET, often used to produce soft drink bottles and garments, was the most prevalent type of plastic discovered.
The sources of microplastics were investigated. Microplastics may have traveled thousands of kilometers in the air, according to atmospheric modeling, but it’s also possible that humans’ presence in Antarctica has left a microplastic’ footprint.’
Antarctica New Zealand environmental advisor Natasha Gardiner has described this UC research as “of huge value.”
“Alex and her colleagues’ research enables Antarctic Treaty Parties to make evidence-based decisions regarding the urgent need to reduce plastic pollution in the future. It improves our understanding of the extent of plastic pollution near Scott Base and where it’s coming from. We can use this information to reduce plastic pollution at its source and inform our broader environmental management practices,” she says.
“Importantly, this research project informs policy at the international level, and we have submitted a paper on the findings to the forthcoming Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting.”
- Alex R. Aves, Laura E. Revell et al. First evidence of microplastics in Antarctic snow. DOI: 10.5194/tc-16-2127-2022