German and Swiss scientists have published a study suggesting that microplastic is being blown vast distances through the air and dumped when it snows, underscoring the threat the growing form of pollution poses to marine life in even the remotest waters on the planet.
The team, from the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), analysed snow samples in Germany, the Swiss Alps and on the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard to confirm that the snow in all places contained high concentrations of plastic fragments, known as microplastic.
"It's readily apparent that the majority of the microplastic in the snow comes from the air," lead researcher Melanie Bergmann said.
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The highest concentration in samples was collected in a rural area in Germany's southern province of Bavaria, totalling to 154,000 particles per litre. The snow in the Arctic contained up to 14,400 particles per litre in comparison.
Researchers found particles of nitrile rubber, acrylates and paints containing plastics in their snow samples.
The study is reinforced by research conducted by a US-led team of scientists in the Northwest Passage. The team found the material trapped in ice taken from Lancaster Sound, an isolated stretch of water in the Canadian Arctic, which they had assumed might be relatively sheltered from drifting plastic pollution.
Eighteen ice cores of up to two metres long were drawn from four locations, containing visible plastic beads and filaments of various shapes and sizes.
The plastic fragments serve to highlight how the waste problem has reached epidemic proportions.
The United Nations estimates that 100 million tonnes of plastic have been dumped in the oceans to date.