First evidence of microplastics in Antarctic snow

Most people see Antarctica as a pristine, relatively untouched place, but a new study published today has revealed the presence of microplastics – plastic pieces much smaller than a grain of rice – in freshly fallen Antarctic snow for the first time.

These findings, ‘First evidence of microplastics in Antarctic snow’ published in the scientific journal The Cryosphere, bring light to a serious threat to the Antarctic. Research has found that microplastics have negative impacts on environmental health (limiting growth, reproduction, and general biological functions in organisms, as well as negative implications for humans). 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.

University of Canterbury PhD student Alex Aves collected snow samples from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica.

Once back in the lab, it quickly became obvious 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.

Aves says she was shocked by her 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,” she says. “We collected snow samples from 19 sites across the Ross Island region of Antarctica and found microplastics in all of these.”

The paper 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.

Immediately next to the scientific bases on Ross Island, Scott Base, and McMurdo Station, the largest station in Antarctica, the density of microplastics was nearly 3-times higher, with similar concentrations to those found in Italian glacier debris. 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 equally likely the presence of humans in Antarctica has established a microplastic ‘footprint’, the researchers say.