Microplastics in the Arctic Sky

From the highest top of the mountain, to the lowest ground of the sea, scientists have found alarming amounts of plastic and microplastic - even in locations which are impossible for us humans to reach. Plastic, a substance that is found all over the globe, in every corner of the earth. 

An untouched environment with snow, ice and rocks being the only landscape as far as the eye can reach. In the least inhabited region and the northest part of this planet, microplastics particles are falling from the sky.

Microplastics are defined small pieces of polymers, a primary component of plastics, that are less than 5mm in diameter and that occur in the environment as a result of plastic pollution. Larger pieces of plastic, even textiles, break down into small fragments until they become so-called microplastic. Once in the environment, these plastic particles are not only harmful to animals and nature, but they also become a health risk for humans.

Traces of what we nowadays call microplastics were already described back in the 1970ies. Only since 2004 when the term was firstly introduced by the marine biologist Richard Thompson, it became part of our linguistic usage. With the word microplastic, professor Thompson tried to depict tiny pieces of plastic accumulated in European waters. Since then, microplastic pollutions have been located all over the globe, even in considerable concentrations all the way to the Arctic.

A study published in Science Advanced shows that in an unpopulated part between Greenland and the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, more precisely in the open ocean on top of ice floats, a huge quantity of plastic fibres and particles have been discovered.

Since 2002, scientists from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research and the Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, had been focussing generally on plastic found on the arctic sea floor. Due to a steady increase of plastic pollution within the years, sometimes as far as 10 folds the previous year, the research team started taking in consideration also smaller pieces, the so-called microplastics.

Microplastic found in ice core samples | Photo Credit - Reuters

Microplastic found in ice core samples | Photo Credit - Reuters

In a two year research study, lasting from 2015 to 2017, the group of scientists took snow samples and started measuring microplastic particles. The numbers that were uncovered by melting the arctic ice were striking: up to 12,000 particles per 34 ounces (33,814 ounces is the equivalent to one litre). A different study confirmed the Arctic Ocean’s surface to be the most microplastic polluted of all oceans in the world.

Distant to any urban centre, usually the source of micro plastic development – how is the accumulation of microplastics even in the most remote locations possible?

Even if there are still notable gaps of knowledge and information about the journey of microplastics to the north, assumptions have been made: scientists believe microplastics to come from the sky. Pollution levels to such an extent can only have been brought via air streams, experts agree. Studies about microplastics making their way not only through ocean currents, but also through air, raise concerns about health risks. According to scientists humans and animals are even likely to inhale the small particles. Arial transport of plastic particles through wind currents have also been confirmed in other studies, which were led in China and France. Travelling the atmosphere, a pathway that enables microplastics to be transported to each and every single corner of the globe.

 

Life Before Plastic

Nowadays a life before plastic is hard to imagine. Surely a pioneering discovery, truly convenient because of its long-lasting, almost indestructible characteristics. It is exactly because of these reasons that the synthetic material became a threat to our environment and planet. Only recently people started to realise the materials double-edged nature. A material that is designed to be durable cannot be a solution for disposable products. Alarming results of divers studies show that trying to recycle plastic is not enough, the only solution is to prevent plastic waste in the first place. It is our responsibility to use sustainable alternatives, wherever plastic can be avoided. Remember that no one needs to be perfect, but everybody can contribute, by adapting new habits. Start simply, but simply start, because every step toward a cleaner future counts.

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