Microplastics discovered in freshly fallen Antarctic snow

Source: 1News

Pieces of plastic much smaller than a grain of rice have been discovered in freshly fallen snow in Antarctica.

Snow sample site details being taken in Antarctica during the University of Canterbury's Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies course, 2019.

University of Canterbury researchers made the discovery after collecting samples of snow from the Ross Ice Shelf and the roadways of Scott Base and McMurdo Station in 2019.

The researchers findings have been published in scientific journal The Cryosphere. At the time, there was optimism PhD student Alex Aves, who collected the samples, wouldn't find any microplastics in such a pristine and remote location.

However, plastic particles were discovered in every sample from remote sites on the Ross Ice Shelf.

READ MORE: Antarctic marine life to bear brunt of climate change on continent

The presence of microplastic particles in the air have the potential to influence the climate by accelerating the melting of snow and ice.

"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," Aves said.

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

Researchers found an average of 29 microplastic particles per litre of melted snow - higher than marine concentrations previously reported from the surrounding Ross Sea and Antarctic sea ice.

Immediately next to Scott Base and McMurdo Station, the density of microplastics was nearly three times higher. The concentrations were similar to those found in Italian glacier debris.

Snow sample collection in Antarctica, 2019.

Thirteen different types of plastic was also found. The most common was PET, which is largely used to make soft drink bottles and clothing.

Where did the microplastics come from?

Atmospheric modelling suggested they may have travelled from up to 6000km away. The presence of humans in Antarctica is an equally likely source, researchers said, as a microplastic "footprint" has been created.

Dr Olga Pantos, a senior scientist with the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, said the study "confirms what we expected".

"It really is impossible for any organism to now avoid the impacts of human activity, similar to the way that all environments and organisms are impacted by human-driven climate change."