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Scientists have found tiny pieces of plastic (popularly known as microplastic) in freshly fallen Antarctic snow for the very first time. The microplastics found in fresh Antarctic snow have the potential to accelerate climate change by rapidly melting ice. According to a researcher, finding microplastics in fresh Antarctic snow indicates the extent of plastic pollution in remote areas of the world.
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic- less than 0.2 inches. When plastic is disposed of and dumped in the ocean or landfills, it decomposes by breaking down into small pieces and eventually microplastics. In simple terms, microplastics stem from plastic erosion, are smaller than a grain of rice, and are even invisible to the naked eye. Nearly 3 million metric tons of microplastics are dumped into the environment per year around the world.
The news about microplastics found in fresh Antarctic snow was recently published in ‘The Cryosphere‘ journal. The research brought to light the deadly threat to the Antarctic region. According to several environmental studies, microplastics negatively impact human and planetary health. In the case of the environment, it limits growth, reproduction, and the general biological functions of organisms.
Researchers from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, gathered snow samples from 19 different sites in the Antarctic in late 2019. Alex Aves, a Ph.D. student from the University, collected snow samples from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica.
All the samples collected contained tiny pieces of plastic. The researchers found an average of 29 plastic particles per liter of melted snow. They also identified 13 different types of plastics. The most common one was polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used mostly in soft-drink bottles and clothing. PET was found in 79 percent of the samples.
The researchers suggest that the findings would have global significance. According to Alex Aves, the airborne microplastics most likely came from local scientific research stations. But, modeling shows that they could have come from around 6000km away. Previous studies in Antarctica found microplastics in the Antarctic sea ice and surface water. This is the first time microplastics in fresh Antarctic snow have been reported.
According to a study published in 2021 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, microplastics have begun to spiral all around the globe; they are mostly transported by wind, dust, and ocean currents. Researchers in 2020 found microplastic near the summit of Mount Everest.
Plastic pollution can have both wider and local impacts. According to Laura Revell, one of the researchers and associate professor at Canterbury University, microplastics have toxic substances stuck on their surfaces, such as heavy metals and algae. These substances make way for harmful organisms or species to enter some of the world’s most remote and sensitive places.
According to scientists, humans inhale and ingest microplastics through water, air, and food. An average individual drink eats and breathes around 74,000 to 114,000 microplastics per year.
Studies into the impacts of microplastics on human health are still a new field of research. According to one study, high levels of microplastics ingested by humans can potentially cause harmful effects. Besides planetary and human health risks, microplastics are also increasing global warming. Ice sheets, glaciers, and snowfields are melting rapidly, and experts say that microplastic deposits at these locations make things worse by absorbing sunlight and increasing local heating.