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Microplastics found for first time in freshly fallen snow in Antarctica. Know what it means here

(Representative image) The scientists published their findings in The Cryosphere journal, where they have warned that the microplastics in the freshly fallen snow of Antarctic would only accelerate the process of melting of ice (REUTERS)Premium
(Representative image) The scientists published their findings in The Cryosphere journal, where they have warned that the microplastics in the freshly fallen snow of Antarctic would only accelerate the process of melting of ice (REUTERS)

  • It is likely that the presence of humans in Antarctica has established a microplastic 'footprint', says researchers

As the world fights to reduce the consumption of plastic, in order to curb plastic pollution, scientists for the first time have found microplastics in freshly fallen snow in Antarctic. 

The scientists published their findings in The Cryosphere journal, where they have warned that the microplastics in the freshly fallen snow of Antarctic would only accelerate the process of melting of ice. 

This in turn also magnifies the threat that the snow capped Antarctic faces owing to global warming. 

A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ad earlier stated that the global usage of plastic is set to increase by three fold by the year 2060. 

There is increasing international alarm over volume and omnipresence of plastics pollution, and its impact. Infiltrating the most remote and otherwise pristine regions of the planet, microplastics have been discovered inside fish in the deepest recesses of the ocean and locked inside Arctic ice.

Microplastics  if found in human beings have a negative impact on their health. It affects growth, reproduction, and general biological functions in organisms and humans. 

"Plastic pollution is one of the great environmental challenges of the 21st century, causing wide-ranging damage to ecosystems and human health," OECD chief Mathias Cormann said.

Since the 1950s, roughly 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced with more than 60% of that tossed into landfills, burned or dumped directly into rivers and oceans.

In late 2019, Alex Aves, a PHD student at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand collected snow samples from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica.

At the time, there had been few studies investigating the presence of microplastics in the air, and it was unknown how widespread this problem was, the researchers said.

"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 Laura Revell, Associate Professor at the University of Canterbury.

Once back in the lab, the researchers found that there were plastic particles in every sample from the remote sites on the Ross Ice Shelf too, and that the findings would be of global significance.

"It is incredibly sad but finding microplastics in fresh Antarctic snow highlights the extent of plastic pollution into even the most remote regions of the world," Aves said.

"We collected snow samples from 19 sites across the Ross Island region of Antarctica and found microplastics in all of these," she added.

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.

Aves analysed snow samples using a chemical analysis technique to identify the type of plastic particles present.

The plastic particles were also looked at under a microscope to identify their colour, size and shape.

The researchers found an average of 29 microplastic particles per litre of melted snow, which is higher than marine concentrations reported previously from the surrounding Ross Sea and in Antarctic sea ice.

Just next to the scientific bases on Ross Island, Scott Base, and McMurdo Station, the largest station in Antarctica, the density of microplastics was nearly three-times higher, with similar concentrations to those found in Italian glacier debris, they said.

There were 13 different types of plastic found, with the most common being PET, commonly used to make soft drink bottles and clothing.

The possible sources of microplastics were examined.

Atmospheric modelling suggested microplastics may have travelled thousands of kilometres through the air, however it is likely that the presence of humans in Antarctica has established a microplastic 'footprint', the researchers added. 

Currently, nearly 100 million tonnes of plastic waste is either mismanaged or allowed to leak into the environment, a figure set to double by 2060.

It could also curtail the amount of planet-warming greenhouse gases projected to seep into the atmosphere.

Currently, the full life-cycle of primary plastics -- from production to disintegration -- contributes about two billion tonnes of CO2 or its equivalent in other gases, roughly 3% of human-caused carbon pollution.

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