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Microplastics in snow

Scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute use the board helicopter from the icebreaking research vessel Polarstern to collect snow samples. Even in the Arctic the snow is polluted with microplastics. Photo: Kajetan Deja/Alfred Wegener Institute


The Inertia

Since humans found out that we could make plastic, we’ve been making extraordinary amounts of it. Sure, it helps make things easier, but man oh man, does that stuff ever take a long time to go away. That single bag you brought a few groceries home in? Yeah, that’ll be kicking around for a few centuries. You’ve surely heard by now about the scourge of microplastics that we’ve managed to spread like dust all over the planet—they’re in our drinking water, in our food, and just about everywhere else. And Science Advances, a scientific journal, recently published a study that found it’s literally snowing microplastics.

The study was conducted by researchers at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany. In an attempt to figure out exactly how microplastics are transported over vast distances, they took samples from a whole bunch of places that should be relatively free of them. Included were Arctic ice floes, a Norwegian archipelago called Svalbard, and the Swiss Alps. The scientists poured melt water through a tiny filter, then looked at what was left behind—and they were horrified at the results. Per liter of snow in the Arctic, they found 14,400 particles. In parts of Europe, they found up to 154,000 particles per liter.

Ranging in size from 11 micrometers to 5 millimeters, the majority of the debris left over was made up of varnish, rubber, and other kinds of plastic. The team says that, like plant pollen, the tiny bits of plastic are pulled into the air and moved thousands of miles before falling with the rain and snow.

“To date, there are virtually no studies investigating the extent to which human beings are subject to microplastic contamination,” lead study author Dr. Melanie Bergmann said in a statement. “But once we’ve determined that large quantities of microplastic can also be transported by the air, it naturally raises the question as to whether and how much plastic we’re inhaling. Older findings from medical research offer promising points of departure for work in this direction.”

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