New Zealand study confirms first microplastics found in Antarctic snow

  • 08/06/2022

A New Zealand study has found evidence of microplastics in freshly fallen snow in Antarctica for the first time.

The University of Canterbury study found microplastics - which are much smaller than a grain of rice - in all 19 of its samples taken in the region. 

Research has shown microplastics have negative impacts on environmental health, limiting growth and reproduction, as well as negative implications for humans. 

The findings published in the scientific journal The Cryosphere also found the presence of microplastic particles in the air, which has the potential to influence the climate by accelerating the melting of snow and ice.

Associate professor in environmental physics Dr Laura Revell said she wasn't optimistic PhD student Alex Aves would find any microplastics in such a pristine and remote location when she collected them in 2019. 

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," Dr Revell said.   

Once the samples made it back to the lab, researchers found there were plastic particles in every sample, and the findings would be of global significance. 

Aves said she was shocked by the 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 said. 

"We collected snow samples from 19 sites across the Ross Island region of Antarctica and found microplastics in all of these."

Dr Revell said she was "not at all surprised" with the findings.

"From the studies published in the last few years we've learned that everywhere we look for airborne microplastics, we find them," Dr Revell said.

There were 13 different types of plastic found, with the most common being one used to make soft drink bottles and clothing.

They also 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. 

Researchers said atmospheric modelling suggested microplastics may have travelled thousands of kilometres through the air, however, it's equally likely the presence of humans in Antarctica has established a microplastic 'footprint'.