Microplastics Problem: Scientists Found Them in Antarctic Ice

Well, well, look how humanity has progressed. Plastic is something that makes some lives easier, but the repercussions are everywhere now. Scientists from the University of Tasmania have discovered evidence of microplastics in an ice core drilled in 2009. In 2009, years ago way before microplastics were widely known like today.

Researchers from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) found a total of 96 microscopic plastic particles in the meter long block of sea ice. They’ve had the ice kept in a freezer for years and they melted it down to see the contents. There were about 14 different types of plastic, mostly polyethylene polymers, which makes it about 34% of all the particles in the ice.

Microplastics in the Antarctic are not something new, since they’ve been previously discovered on its waters, sediment, and snow. That’s already bad, but apparently the impact is unfortunately worse than we think. It’s in an ice core. From the Antarctic. Dug a decade ago.

Previously, US researchers conducted a research on ice fields during an 18-day icebreaker expedition through the Northwest Passage and they found plastic. However, the ones found down there were more massive than the parts seen in the north. Maybe they need to drill something as well in order to know the comparison fully, but so far this is the case.

microfiber found in sea water. Work by M.Danny25 Wikimedia commons
microfiber found in sea water. Work by M.Danny25 Wikimedia commons

Additionally, a dozen individual pieces of plastic were found per liter. I mentioned that they were mostly polyethylene, including LDPE and HDPE. The next most commonly found polymers were polypropylene and polyamide, including nylon, which account for 15% and 14% respectively. All measure 5mm and shorter in length.

So what’s the cause of this amount of plastic pollution in the remotest place on Earth? Because of the size of the microfibers, researchers believe that local sources, particularly the good ol’ tourism, to be the primary suspect.

“It could be coming from the continent and travelling through the currents, it could be coming from boat traffic or more local pollution like tourism or researchers, but we don’t have any solid data on that yet,” said the IMAS lead researcher Anna Kelly.

“The microplastic polymers in our ice core were larger than those in the Arctic, which may indicate local pollution sources because the plastic has less time to break down into smaller fibres than if transported long distances on ocean currents,” she went on.

Plastic pollution everywhere

The United Nations reported that there are more than 51 trillion microplastic particles in the sea in 2017. This number is more than 500 times the number of stars in the Milky Way.

We know that this is highly problematic because 1) they’re 5mm or less, so we can’t see them through naked eyes unlike other forms of plastic we can see and touch, 2) microplastics are relatively new to us, and so is the study of them. We don’t know much about it, and as a result, we don’t know how to deal with it yet.

Associate Professor Delphine Lannuzel said that sea ice is a habitat for scouring creatures such as krill. He adds that krill defines everything else in the food chain and relies on sea ice algae for nourishment. And when researchers found the microplastics, the krills were feasting on them too.

Lannuzel added that since ice algae is now contaminated with microplastics, and the krills are eating them, we can assume that everything goes to a lot of things in the ocean and they might end up in the systems of animals like whales.

There is a research from the American Chemical Society earlier this month that found how lobsters can eat and break down some microplastics. Impressive maybe, beneficial? No. The result of that is tinier fragments which are floating around the water and may get ingested by deep sea organisms and pose a threat to their health.

microplastics found in sediments. Work by Martin Wagner et al Wikimedia commons
microplastics found in sediments. Work by Martin Wagner et al Wikimedia commons

So this proves that even though the plastics are micro, they can lead to a lot of bad things, particularly to animal’s food chain and eventually us humans too. It all comes to a full circle, like it or not. Kelly expressed her worry about the same issue.

She said, “The more microplastics you have in the sea ice, the easier the ice melts, so it could have some big implications for biogeochemical cycles. And if the plastics are small enough, it could have some big implications if they get out of the ice and how that is affecting the marine life in the Antarctic.”

Kelly added, “If we’ve got plastic particles in Antarctica, in one of the most remote habitats on Earth, [then plastics] are extremely widespread and we are having a big impact even in places that most of us will never get to visit.”

She made sure that the contamination didn’t come from the lab and everything else. Her team calculated carefully in order to guarantee that the result is factual. “We had to do quite a few test runs to make sure no plastic from me or from anywhere in the lab was getting into the ice, so I actually made some fake ice cores and practised,”

“The plan was to cut it up into different sections, melt the different sections, filter the water and then look at the filter under a microscope to see what type of plastics we had. I had a special body suit I would wear over all of my clothing so that none of my sweaters or jumpers would contaminate the sample,” said Kelly.



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