Microplastics discovered in Antarctic snow for the first time

New research highlights the scale of plastic pollution and its effects in the most remote region of the world.

A chinstrap penguin colony in front of a glacier on Elephant Island in Antarctica [Christian Aslund/Greenpeace]
A chinstrap penguin colony in front of a glacier on Elephant Island in Antarctica [File: Christian Aslund/Greenpeace]

Microplastics have been discovered in freshly fallen snow in Antarctica for the first time, according to newly published research, raising concerns about the pollutant’s effects on ecosystems, ice melting, and possible health risks.

Alex Aves, a student at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, collected snow samples from 19 sites across the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica in 2019 and said she was shocked to find microplastics – any piece of plastic smaller than five millimetres in length – in every sample.

“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,” she said.

Her research, published on Wednesday in the science journal The Cryosphere, found an average of 29 microplastic particles per litre (about one quart) of melted snow.

Microplastics have previously been found inside fish in the deepest recesses of the ocean and inside Arctic ice, infiltrating the remotest and otherwise pristine regions of the planet, but not in freshly fallen snow.

The density of microplastics was nearly three times higher immediately next to the scientific bases on Ross Island, Scott Base, and McMurdo Station.

Of the 13 different types of plastic found, the most common was PET, which is often used to make soft drink bottles and clothing.

Microplastics may have travelled thousands of kilometres through the air, but it is equally likely the presence of humans in Antarctica established a microplastic “footprint”, the research found.

The research confirmed what scientists expected, Institute of Environmental Science and Research senior scientist Olga Panto said.

“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,” she was quoted as saying by the dpa news agency.

Reports underscore the need for joint action over the omnipresence of plastics pollution to avoid its effect.

Significant steps are needed to reduce the use and management of plastics, Panto said.

Global plastic waste

Plastic waste contributes to not only littering of the oceans, but also to the climate crisis – through emitting greenhouse gases as it breaks down – and it poses human health risks.

Since the 1950s, roughly 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced with more than 60 percent of that tossed into landfills, burned or dumped directly into rivers and oceans. Some 460 million tonnes of plastics were used in 2019, twice as much as 20 years earlier.

With current annual global production of plastic, global plastic waste is projected to triple by 2060, reported the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on Friday.

The OECD predicts this increase will be driven by economic and population growth. The largest increases are expected in emerging economies in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

In 2020, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency, estimated 14 million tonnes of harmful microplastics may be present at the bottom of the world’s deep oceans as a result of the pervasive use of plastic.

About 4 to 8 percent of annual global oil consumption is of plastic, and it is estimated that might reach 20 percent by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies