Microplastics found in fresh Antarctic snow | Polarjournal
A New Zealand research team has detected microplastic particles in all snow samples from the Ross Ice Shelf. Photo: Michael Wenger

After all the previous reports of microplastics in the most remote regions of the world, including various habitats in Antarctica, the latest news is unfortunately not very surprising: a young scientist and her team from the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand discovered microplastics in freshly fallen snow in East Antarctica. Their study was published yesterday in the journal The Cryosphere.

Microplastics and even nanoplastics have already been detected in water, on the seabed, in sea ice and in bottom-dwelling animals in Antarctica in previous studies. So it was only a matter of time before microplastics were also discovered in fresh snow.

For the current research, Alex Aves, a doctoral student at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, and lead author of the study, collected snow samples from the Ross Ice Shelf in late 2019, when none of the previously mentioned evidence of microplastics had been published and few studies had looked at microplastics in the atmosphere.

“When Alex travelled to Antarctica in 2019, we were optimistic that she wouldn’t find any microplastics in such a pristine and remote location,” said Dr. Laura Revell, associate professor of environmental physics. In addition to the more remote locations, “we asked her to collect snow off the Scott Base and McMurdo Station roadways, so she’d have at least some microplastics to study.”

The research team found microplastics at all 19 sampling sites, including remote locations on the Ross Ice Shelf. Concentrations were highest in close proximity to the Scott Base and McMurdo Station research stations (blue triangles) on Ross Island. Graphic: Aves et al. 2022

However, lab analyses quickly showed that every single sample from the remote sites on the Ross Ice Shelf also contained microplastics. Alex Aves was shocked by their findings, “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. We collected snow samples from 19 sites across the Ross Island region of Antarctica and found microplastics in all of these.”

“Looking back now, I’m not at all surprised,” Dr. Revell says. “From the studies published in the last few years we’ve learned that everywhere we look for airborne microplastics, we find them.”

The research team found an average of 29 microplastic particles per liter of melted snow – a higher concentration than reported in previous studies from Ross Sea water and Antarctic sea ice. Concentrations were highest in close proximity to the Ross Island research stations, Scott Base and McMurdo Station, with nearly three times as many particles per liter of snow.
In addition, the team determined plastic type, color, shape and size of the particles. They identified 13 different types of plastic, with PET being the most common. They also found copolymers, polymethyl methacrylates, PVC, polyamide, polyethylene and other types of plastics. Most of the particles found were fibers.

Local sources of microfiber include flags used near research stations to mark paths, depots, or dangerous obstacles. Due to the extreme environmental conditions such as sunlight and storms, the material polyamide disintegrates very quickly: left – new condition, right – after they were retrieved. Photo: Evan Townsend(https://www.truesouthflag.com/flags-of-antarctica)

The authors see possible sources as, on the one hand, air currents that transported the particles thousands of kilometers to Antarctica, and on the other hand, the presence of humans in Antarctica, who left a “microplastic footprint.”

Natasha Gardiner, Environmental Advisor to Antarctica New Zealand, the Government of New Zealand’s Antarctic Institute, considers the new findings to be very valuable and says: “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 to 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.”

“Importantly, this research project also informs policy at the international level, and we have submitted a paper on the findings to the forthcoming Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting,” Gardiner adds.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

Link to the study: Alex R. Aves, Laura E. Revell, Sally Gaw et al. The Cryosphere, 16, 2127-2145, https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-16-2127-2022, 2022

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