Microplastic Pollution Found in Snow in the Remotest Corners of the World

Researchers discovered microplastic pollutants in snow located in the Arctic and the Alps.

Microplastic Pollution Found in Snow in the Remotest Corners of the World
Iceberg in the Arctic with bottle in the ocean Ales_Utovko/iStock

Over the past few years, microplastics have turned up in the ocean, in drinking water, and in aminals. Now the snow in the Arctic and Alps can be added to the places microplastic pollution has been discovered. 

A team of experts from the Alfred Wegener Institute and the Swiss WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research discovered microplastic particles are being transported into the atmosphere and are then washed out of the air by snow. As a result of this process, plastic pollution is showing up in the Arctic and the Alps. 

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Little research has been done on the extent of microplastics in the atmosphere 

Microplastics are formed by the motion of waves and UV radiation from the sun, which breaks down the plastic litter found in rivers, coastal waters, and the Arctic deep sea. The smaller fragments are known as microplastic. It is well known that these fragments end up in seawater and in marine organisms that ingest it. But the researchers said little work has been done looking at what extent microplastic particles end up in the atmosphere until now. 

Published in the journal Science Advances, the team of scientists led by Dr. Melanie Bergmann and Dr. Gunnar Gerdts revealed samples of snow from Helgoland, Bavaria, Bremen, the Swiss Alps, and the Arctic confirm high concentrations of microplastic. The microplastic pollution was even found in remote areas of the Arctic including on the island of Svalbard as well as in snow on drifting ice floes. “It’s readily apparent that the majority of the microplastic in the snow comes from the air,” said Bergmann in a press release highlighting the results. 

Remote areas of Arctic contained microplastics from rubber, acrylates, and paint

The scientists collected the samples using a variety of methods including tapping citizen scientists who used snowmobiles to gather snow in the remote locations. The scientists used a infrared spectroscopy to determine what types of plastic made up the pollutants. The highest concentrations of microplastic came from samples gathered a rural road in Bavaria, with the snow containing 1540,000 particles per litre. Snow in the Arctic contained as much as 14,400 particles per litre. In the Arctic, the researchers mainly found nitrile rubber, acrylates, and paint.

The snow from the rural road in Bavaria contained a variety of rubber. The researchers said they found the microplastic concentrations in the snow were higher than what is found on dust deposits and in other studies. Gunnar Gerdts, another lead researcher said snow is efficient at washing microplastics out of the atmosphere. The scientists said they are convinced that a large portion of the microplastic found in Europe and the Arctic is brought from the atmosphere and snow. 

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Findings raise new concerns 

Those findings are raising new concerns about the impact microplastics that are airborne will have on the environment and the health of people around the world.  The researchers said more work needs to be done to understand the full impacts of airborne microplastics. "Once we’ve determined that large quantities of microplastic can also be transported by the air, it naturally raises the question as to whether and how much plastic we’re inhaling," said Bergmann. 

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