June 9, 2022 -- Microplastics have been found over the years in drinking water, salt, dust, oceans, and the summit of Mount Everest. Now they have been found in the fresh-fallen snow of remote Antarctica.
Researchers from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand found tiny plastic fragments in samples collected at 19 sites on the least-populated continent, as reported in the journal The Cryosphere.
Microplastics are tiny bits of plastic materials smaller than a grain of rice and sometimes invisible to the naked eye. The most common microplastic found in Antarctica was polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is mostly used for soft drink bottles and clothing.
Microplastics had been found previously in Antarctica, but researchers say this is the first time they have been found in fresh snow.
The study says microplastics can cause “significant ecological damage” and have negative effects on marine organisms and environments. They are “known to be damaging to terrestrial ecosystems, while their small size and relatively low density also allow them to become airborne and transported over large distances.”
"The most likely source of these airborne microplastics is local scientific research stations," researcher Alex Aves wrote. "However, modelling shows their origin could have been up to 6,000km (3,700 miles) away."
Microplastics move between sea, water, and air, reaching “the Arctic, Tibetan Plateau, European alpine regions” and more.
They could cause harmful effects in humans and add to global warming, BBC.com says.
"Microplastics can have harmful substances stuck on to their surfaces such as heavy metals, algae," said Laura Revell, associate professor at Canterbury who was involved in the research. "So they can provide a way in which harmful species can make it into some remote and sensitive areas, that otherwise wouldn't get there."
Gizmodo says the new study “offers clues as to where most recently deposited plastic may be coming from” – from humans relatively new to the continent or from far away.