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Microplastics show up in Antarctic snow

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Snow samples from 19 sites across the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica all revealed microplastics. Photo: Getty
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Global pollution has reached as far as the Antarctic, research suggests, with microplastics discovered for the first time in the region’s snow.

Alex Aves, a student at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, collected snow samples from 19 sites across the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica in 2019 and said she was shocked to find microplastics in every sample.

“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.

Her research, published in the science journal The Cryosphere, found an average of 29 microplastic particles per litre of melted snow.

Microplastics are defined as any piece of plastic smaller than five millimetres in length.

The density of microplastics was nearly three times higher immediately next to the scientific bases on Ross Island, Scott Base, and McMurdo Station.

Of the 13 different types of plastic found, the most common was PET, which is often used to make soft drink bottles and clothing.

Microplastics may have travelled thousands of kilometres through the air, but it is equally likely the presence of humans in Antarctica established a microplastic ‘footprint’, the researchers say.

The research confirmed what scientists expected, Institute of Environmental Science and Research senior scientist Olga Panto said.

“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,” she said.

Significant steps are needed to reduce the use and management of plastics, Panto said.