PHOTO: UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences from London, UK - McMurdo Station and Ross Ice Shelf, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50490545

EXPERT REACTION: First microplastics found in Antarctic snow

Embargoed until: Publicly released:
Peer-reviewed: This work was reviewed and scrutinised by relevant independent experts.

In a world first, a NZ study has confirmed microplastics are present in Antarctica's Ross Island region. Kiwi researchers analysed fresh snow from 19 sites in the region, finding an average concentration of 29 microplastic particles per litre of melted snow. These microplastics most likely come from plastic products used at local scientific research stations, however, this team's modelling also suggests their origin could have been up to 6,000 km away. 

Journal/conference: The Cryosphere

Link to research (DOI): 10.5194/tc-16-2127-2022

Organisation/s: University of Canterbury

Funder: LER and SG were supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund (contract number MFP-UOC1903). ARA was supported by Gateway Antarctica’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade Scholarship in Antarctic and Southern Ocean Studies. We acknowledge mana whenua, Ngāi Tūāhuriri, on whose lands our analysis and writing took place.

Media release

From: University of Canterbury

University of Canterbury researchers have published the world’s first study confirming the discovery of microplastics in fresh snow in Antarctica.

Most people see Antarctica as a pristine, relatively untouched place, but a new study published today (5am NZST Wednesday 8 June) 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 in late 2019 as part of Gateway Antarctica’s Postgraduate Certificate of Antarctic Studies. (Gateway Antarctica is the Centre for Antarctic Studies and Research at the University of Canterbury.) At the time, there had been few studies investigating the presence of microplastics in the air, and it was unknown how widespread this problem was.

“When Alex travelled to Antarctica in 2019, we were optimistic that she wouldn’t find any microplastics in such a pristine and remote location,” Associate Professor in Environmental Physics Dr Laura Revell says. In addition to more remote sites, “we asked her to collect snow off the Scott Base and McMurdo Station roadways, so she’d have at least some microplastics to study”.

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, who recently graduated with a Master of Antarctic Studies degree with Distinction, 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.”

“Looking back now, I’m not at all surprised,” Associate Professor Revell says. “From the studies published in the last few years we’ve learned that everywhere we look for airborne microplastics, we find them.”

Aves analysed snow samples using a chemical analysis technique (micro-Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy) to identify the type of plastic particles present. The plastic particles were also looked at under a microscope to identify their colour, size and shape – all important observational information for future work.

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.

Antarctica New Zealand environmental advisor Natasha Gardiner has described this UC research as “of huge value”.

“Alex and her colleagues’ research enables Antarctic Treaty Parties to make evidence-based decisions regarding the urgent need to reduce plastic pollution in the future. It improves our understanding of the extent of plastic pollution near to Scott Base and where it’s coming from. We can use this information to reduce plastic pollution at its source and inform our broader environmental management practices,” she says.

“Importantly, this research project also informs policy at the international level, and we have submitted a paper on the findings to the forthcoming Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting.” 

This research was supported by the Royal Society Te Apārangi and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the field work was completed through the University of Canterbury's Postgraduate Certificate of Antarctic Studies course with logistical support from Antarctica New Zealand.

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Dr Holly Winton, Research Fellow in Antarctic ice core climatology, Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington

When we think of Antarctica, we often think of the last place on Earth untouched by humans. That is certainly what Ronald Amundsen believed when he raced to the South Pole in 1911. Only recently did scientists find that atmospheric pollution bet him there by two decades. Over a hundred years on from the race to the South Pole, Aves and colleagues (2022) discovered that microplastic pollution has invaded each continent on Earth including Antarctica. 

Likely sourced from nearby stations, but not ruling out remote Southern Hemispheric sources, Aves and co-researchers detected a range of microplastic polymer types, colours, shapes, and sizes in surface snow collected from multiple sites surrounding Ross Island in the Ross Sea region. Microplastics are lightweight and have a low density. These properties mean that relatively large microplastic particles can be transported a greater distance in the atmosphere than dust particles. 

Being an ice core scientist, I wonder what ice cores could tell us about the history of microplastic contamination in Antarctica. Are the microplastics in Aves’ samples a one-off occurrence or have microplastics been around Antarctica undetected for some time? 

While the atmospheric science community is only beginning to understand the uniqueness of natural atmospheric particles over the pristine Southern Ocean and Antarctica, a new source of synthetic particles in the atmosphere raises new questions regarding their influence on atmospheric processes and climate. How will microplastics impact wildlife in the largest marine reserve on Earth – the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area? Answering these questions is time critical and essential if we are to quickly act to mitigate the impacts of microplastics on climate and the environment.

Last updated: 08 Jun 2022 6:51am
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Stephen Archer, Senior Research Fellow, AUT University

Unfortunately I was not surprised to learn that microplastics have contaminated Antarctica, given their persistence in every other environment on Earth and easy distribution via the air. The sun in Antarctica is exceptionally harsh with gear degrading rapidly and fragments of plastics will inevitably spread. Best efforts are made, certainly by Antarctica New Zealand, to limit environmental contamination. Having studied airborne microorganisms in Antarctica I can attest that although most are locally derived, there is plenty of evidence that the circumpolar vortex does not block all intercontinental movement onto the continent and I would imagine that the contribution globally to microplastics in Antarctica will only increase as time goes on.

As a species we need to come to grips with the global impact we are having to our environment and the fact that many of these pollutants are transboundary – they do not stay localised to the site of production becoming someone else’s, and potentially all of our problem.

Any scientists I have met who have conducted research on the continent are acutely aware of how precious the continent is for scientific advancement and the conflict that comes from knowing that by learning more about it, you are damaging a small part of it. My supervisor explained it simply when I was doing my PhD there that everything you do there must justify the damage you will inevitably do so make the most of every second you have the privilege of conducting science in this unique place.

Last updated: 08 Jun 2022 6:49am
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Craig Cary, Microbial Ecologist, University of Waikato

What this paper is doing is shedding light on the importance of understanding how much and where microplastics are coming into the continent. The impact of what they saw in the snow is likely similar to the impact in the terrestrial system – which is where 99.9% of the life in Antarctica is found. From my perspective as a microbial ecologist, that's really important.

For me what they found is not surprising given the proximity to the bases. They sampled recent snowfall and assumed that this would represent 'aeolian' sources (produced or carried by the wind) - but the wind blows continuously there, and likely mixes and sorts particles locally. I'd like to see stronger evidence for the idea that these plastics might be coming from offshore, but it's really hard to identify where microplastics come from. If in fact the sources for these plastics is off-continent, then I would expect that in the terrestrial environment, like the Dry Valleys where snowfall accumulates and sublimes, there should be considerable accumulation of microplastics. This would be an easy way to verify their hypothesis.

There have been a lot of changes in what we can bring down to Antarctica because we now know that things can get out of the bases. For example, the amount of styrofoam coming into the continent has been seriously reduced, if not eliminated. The same goes for wood and in some cases even cardboard where it can be replaced with plastic reusable containers.

Previously we did some work out in the McMurdo Dry Valleys with particle collectors, basically little wind vanes that have the ability to collect particles in the air. We set up eight of them into Miers Valley, and when we came back the next year, all eight of them had little styrofoam balls in them. That valley is 65 km from the bases and we were still picking up styrofoam out there which could have come from anywhere.

Scientific research is probably the greatest impact on the continent, and there's every reason to go to Antarctica for science. But we wanted to do some longer-term studies, so we recently built an environmental chamber to emulate the conditions of the Antarctic dry valleys. We re-ran some of our Antarctic field studies in the chamber, and we saw that the results were very similar. So now we can do experiments in four weeks in the chamber, which would normally take us four months or much longer to do in the dry valleys - without ever having to go and impact Antarctica.

Last updated: 08 Jun 2022 6:47am
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Olga Pantos, Senior Scientist, Institute of Environmental Science and Research

Microplastics are being found in every environment, every ecosystem and every species so far tested. This includes in some of the most remote and uninhabited places on earth. So this study, sadly, 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. Plastic pollution (of all sizes) not only is an impact on the scale of climate change but also is intimately entwined with it – from the extraction of fossil fuels for plastic production to the recently identified role atmospheric microplastic particles play in the reflection and trapping of heat.

Whilst research around the impacts of nano- and microplastics is still in its infancy, they are being seen to affect organisms and ecosystems in a variety of ways. It is therefore of concern that yet another remote ecosystem is exposed to more impacts resulting from human activity.

Until some significant steps are taken to reduce the use and management of plastics, the levels of plastic pollution in the environment are going to continue to rise, and the levels of nano- and microplastics will continue to rise for a significant period, as all the plastic already out there continues to fragment but doesn’t really go away completely. This highlights the need for the UN’s global treaty to ban plastic pollution. Treaties, policies, and regulations each take time, but we can all do a lot of things today that change and reduce the pressure of plastic pollution upon the environment - of which we are a part.

Last updated: 08 Jun 2022 6:45am
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.

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