For the first time, microplastics have been found in freshly fallen ice in Antarctica. Scientists argue that the pollutant poses a major threat to the region’s ecosystem and could increase the melting of snow and ice. The findings, published recently in The Cryosphere journal, bring to light a serious threat to the Antarctic region.


What are microplastics?

  • Among the range of plastic debris that is found in water bodies, microplastics are the most notorious because of their small size, on average microplastics are less than 5 mm in length or roughly equal to five pinheads.
  • Apart from humans, microplastics are harmful to marine species as well. More than 663 marine species are affected by marine debris and 11 percent of them are said to be related to microplastic ingestion.
  • Because microplastics are so small, they are ingested by marine habitants including fish, corals, planktons and sea mammals and are then carried further into the food chain.
  • In the case of humans, most of the microplastics can be found in food, water and food containers and their ingestion can cause health problems.
  • Types There are two types of microplastics as follows —
        • Primary microplastics — These are tiny particles (solid plastic particles of less than one millimetre in their largest dimension) intentionally designed for commercial use, such as cosmetics, nurdles i.e., plastic pellets used in industrial manufacturing and fibers from synthetic fabrics such as nylon.
        • Secondary microplastics — These are formed from the degradation of large plastic objects such as bottles, fishing nets and plastic bags. It is caused by exposure to the environment, such as radiation from the sun, wind and ocean waves.


How microplastics reach Antarctica?

  • Earlier discovery — In 2020, researchers found microplastics near the summit of Mount Everest. They have also been found in deep oceans.
  • Previous studies have found microplastic pollution in Antarctic sea ice and surface water, but the new study is the first reported case in fresh snow.
  • Study findings — The study found an average of 29 microplastic particles per liter of melted snow. Furthermore, studies show the ubiquitous presence of microplastics not only in land and water, but also in air.
  • Concentration — The samples next to local base camps such as Scott Base and McMurdo Station in Ross Island had much larger concentrations of microplastics (about 3 times higher) compared to remote sites.
  • Samples found — Of the 13 different plastic types found, the most common was polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a type of plastic used in everyday items such as clothing, plastic bottles, packaging, etc. PET was detected in 79 percent of all samples.
  • Track — These particles can travel in the air from more than 6,000 km (3,700 miles) away due to their light weight and low density.
  • Source of air borne microplastics — The most likely sources of airborne microplastics are local research stations, caused by clothing worn by employees, broken pieces of plastic equipment, and mismanaged waste.
  • According to the report, way finding flags made of synthetic polyamide fabric, which identify safe routes for travel, can also release microplastics.
  • Scavenging — When ice travels in the atmosphere, it binds itself to airborne particles and pollutants, which then accumulate on the Earth’s surface. This phenomenon is called “scavenging” which according to scientists is an important way in which microplastics are able to travel up and pollute land and water.
  • Anthropological reasons — The researchers argue that there is also the possibility that human presence in Antarctica may have created a microplastic ‘footprint’.