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Plastic is now falling from the skies in the most remote place on earth

June 9, 2022, 11:54 AM UTC

Tiny particles of plastic have been found in freshly fallen Antarctic snow for the first time, according to researchers at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury.

The researchers took 19 samples of snow from different sites along the Ross Ice Shelf—the largest ice shelf in Antarctica—and found microplastics in every single sample taken.

The findings, published in the science journal The Cryosphere, represent “a serious threat to the Antarctic.” Not only do microplastics limit growth, reproduction, and general biological functions in organisms, “on a wider scale, the presence of microplastic particles in the air has the potential to influence the climate by accelerating melting of snow and ice,” the researchers said in a statement.

While it is hard to imagine how plastic has managed to reach Antarctica, microplastics have been found almost everywhere else. Microplastics are in the food we eat and the water we drink, in the deepest depths of the ocean and floating in the air, in the feces of babies and adults, and in a recent study, running through our veins in human blood.

An enormous amount of plastic waste is dumped into the environment each year, and researchers estimate plastic waste could more than double in the next 20 years—from 188 million tonnes in 2016 to 380 million tonnes in 2040—which also means the problem will likely get worse before it gets any better.

Antarctic plastic

Microplastics have previously been found in Antarctic sea ice and surface water, but to find it in the remote Ross Ice Shelf was a surprise even to the researchers.

“When Alex traveled to Antarctica in 2019, we were optimistic that she wouldn’t find any microplastics in such a pristine and remote location,” associate professor in environmental physics Laura Revell said in a statement, recounting the Ph.D. study of University of Canterbury researcher Alex Aves.

It was thought to be so unlikely that Aves would find microplastics in the snow that Revell “asked her to collect snow off the Scott Base and McMurdo Station roadways, so she’d have at least some microplastics to study.”

After testing the snow, the researcher found an average of 29 microplastics per liter in the melted snow, with likely higher concentrations in the surrounding Ross Sea and Antarctic sea ice.

“It’s incredibly sad, but finding microplastics in fresh Antarctic snow highlights the extent of plastic pollution into even the most remote regions of the world,” said Aves, who was shocked at her own findings.

Atmospheric modeling suggests the microplastics either traveled thousands of miles through the air or “the presence of humans in Antarctica has established a microplastic ‘footprint.’”

Olga Pantos, a senior scientist with New Zealand’s Institute of Environmental Science, said in a statement on Science Media Centre, “Microplastics are being found in every environment, every ecosystem, and every species so far tested. This includes some of the most remote and uninhabited places on earth.”

She added, “It really is impossible for any organism to now avoid the impacts of human activity, similar to the way that all environments and organisms are impacted by human-driven climate change.”

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