Updated Jun 9, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Microplastics found in fresh Antarctic snow for first time

The scene in Antarctica, near Weddell Sea, at Snow Hill Island, featuring Emperor Penguins tobogganing over ice.

Emperor penguins in Antarctica. Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Scientists have found microplastics in freshly fallen Antarctic snow for the first time.

Why it matters: Researchers from New Zealand's University of Canterbury discovered tiny plastic particles in all 19 samples taken from sites along the Ross Ice Shelf, per a study published Wednesday in the science journal The Cryosphere.

  • The findings represent "a serious threat to the Antarctic," given research indicates that microplastics hurt environmental health, and their presence in the air "has the potential to influence the climate by accelerating melting of snow and ice," the University of Canterbury notes in a statement.

For the record: Microplastics were previously found in Antarctic sea ice and surface water. But University of Canterbury professor Laura Revell, who was involved in the study, said in a statement researchers never expected to find any "in such a pristine and remote location."

The big picture: University of Canterbury Ph.D. student Alex Aves collected the pieces of plastic that are smaller than rice grains during a research trip to Antarctica in 2019.

  • The research found an average of 29 microplastic particles per liter (0.26 gallons) of melted snow, which researchers note is higher than marine concentrations reported previously from the surrounding Ross Sea and in Antarctic sea ice.
  • Atmospheric modeling suggested the microplastics may have traveled thousands of miles through the air, though researchers said in a statement it's "equally likely the presence of humans in Antarctica has established a microplastic 'footprint.'"

What they're saying: "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 in a statement.

Between the lines: Olga Pantos, a senior scientist with New Zealand's Institute of Environmental Science and Research, noted in a statement that, while research around microplastics is still in its infancy, the effects are "being seen to affect organisms and ecosystems in a variety of ways."

  • "Microplastics are being found in every environment, every ecosystem and every species so far tested," said Pantos, who wasn't involved in the study but has conducted extensive research into microplastic concentrations in coastal waters around New Zealand.
  • "This includes some of the most remote and uninhabited places on earth. So this study, sadly, confirms what we expected," Pantos added.

Worth noting: Microplastics have previously been found in the deep sea and in the guts of marine animals.

The bottom line, via Pantos: "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."

Go deeper: Tracking plastic pollution hot spots

Editor's note: This article has been updated with further context.

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