For the first time, microplastics have been found in freshly laid snow in the once-pristine land of Antarctica. Not only does this highlight just how prolific pollution is across the natural world, but the researchers of the new study also argue that the presence of plastic itself could be speeding up the melting of snow and ice in the area.
As reported in the journal The Cryosphere, scientists from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand analyzed fresh snow from 19 sites across Antarctica's Ross Island region and found plastic particles in every sample.
On average, a liter of melted snow contained around 29 microplastic particles, the most prolific of which was PET, the plastic commonly used to make drinks bottles and clothing.
“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,” Alex Aves, lead study author and University of Canterbury PhD student, said in a statement.
Microplastics have previously been found in Antarctic sea ice, but this is the first time it has been reported in Antarctica's fresh snowfall.
“Looking back now, I’m not at all surprised,” added Dr Laura Revell, study author and Associate Professor in Environmental Physics. “From the studies published in the last few years we’ve learned that everywhere we look for airborne microplastics, we find them.”
Previous research has shown how microplastics can travel thousands of kilometers through the air, which is likely how some of this microplastic arrived in the remote continent, but the researchers believe that Antarctica's microplastic also comes from the tourists and researchers visiting the continent. It’s notable that the highest concentrations of microplastics were discovered near to the scientific bases on Ross Island.
Worryingly, the presence of microplastics in Antarctica could speed up the melting of the region’s ice and snow. This is because darker specks of microplastics could cause the snow and ice to darken, leading to more absorption of sunlight and heat.
“Dark-coloured microplastics are likely efficient at absorbing solar radiation compared to lighter colors and are of particular concern in the cryosphere as they may accelerate melting,” the study reads.
There's also some concern about what impact the microplastics might have on the region's wildlife. The study points to previous research that has shown how microplastics have already been found in the diet of a number of native penguin species.
While the health risk is not yet fully understood, a mounting heap of evidence is beginning to show how microplastics can accumulate along marine food chains, along with the build-up of toxic chemicals like phthalates, bisphenol A , and others used in the manufacturing process. Some studies have linked this to an array of detrimental impacts on fish and other aquatic life, including reducing food intake, delaying growth, oxidative damage, and abnormal behavior.
"How will microplastics impact wildlife in the largest marine reserve on Earth – the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area? Answering these questions is time-critical and essential if we are to quickly act to mitigate the impacts of microplastics on climate and the environment," commented Dr Holly Winton, Research Fellow in Antarctic ice core climatology at the Victoria University of Wellington, who was not directly involved with the new research.