Even Remote Regions Like Antarctica Have Microplastics

microplastics in Antarctica snow

Image source by James Eades on Unsplash

The problem of microplastics polluting our environment is increasingly well-known. Unfortunately, even remote areas are not exempt from it.

Even Antarctica, a wild, remote, and pristine land are not exempt from plastic pollution. In a recent study, scientists found higher concentrations of microplastics in the region's snow. 

Scientists have discovered that there are microplastics - small plastic debris around the size of a sesame seed or smaller - in snow samples across Antarctica. This is the first time this type of microplastic density has been found in this sparsely populated continent.

The findings are published in The Cryosphere. The team stated that in the 19 snow samples from the Ross Island of Antarctica, an average of 29 particles are in the snow. The most common microplastics are polyethylene terephthalate (PET).   

How Microplastics Reach Antarctica

The microplastics were found in both populated parts and the highly remote areas. In fact, the microplastic density levels were three times higher in areas with human settlers than those without. The study shows that even areas that have little to no human inhabitants still have plastic particles proliferating in the environment.  

The findings suggest that microplastics are ubiquitous everywhere, regardless of human settlement. Experts believe that it’s likely the plastic particles leach off into oceans and get swept by the currents. There are also microplastics that are airborne, and can go long distances by wind. 

Microplastics in Antarctica may not have originated from the population there. Like water, plastics have its own distinct cycle of movement across the world. The particles that settled in Antarctica may have traveled as far as 6,000 km (3,700 mi) to proliferate in the Ross Island Region.

As widespread as the damage is, microplastics' problem is how easily they spread. Being that small and low in density enables these particles to be airborne and transported to great distances. Since plastic is virtually indestructible, microplastics found in Antarctica will likely stay there for centuries.

Problem with Microplastics

It is concerning because microplastics can absorb pollutants and act as a vector for transporting them into our bodies. Microplastics are contaminants linked to hormonal issues, reproductive defects (especially in males), kidney damage, and more. Sadly, these plastic particles are easily inhaled and ingested by humans and animals, causing various health problems. 

Aside from the health impact, microplastics could also influence climate severely. Darker-colored microplastics absorb more light and could hasten ice melting if they settle in alpine or polar regions. Moreover, microplastics can act as cloud ice nuclei in the atmosphere. That means it can have some effect on global warming.

This study is one of the first to document microplastics in Antarctica. "This highlights the importance of source control measures to reduce microplastic pollution," the authors note. The findings emphasize the wide-spanning problem of plastic pollution and how it can contaminate even the most remote lands. 

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