AUG 17, 2019 8:03 AM PDT

How the atmosphere transports microplastics

Research recently published in the journal Science Advances from scientists at the Alfred Wegener Institute and the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) shows that microplastics are being transported by the atmosphere, in addition to transport via waterways and sediments. The scientists show that microplastics moved over large distances by the atmosphere are appearing all over the world when they are “washed out of the air by precipitation, particularly snow.”

Led by Dr. Melanie Bergmann and Dr. Gunnar Gerdts, the research team analyzed samples of snow from Helgoland, Bavaria, Bremen, the Swiss Alps and the Arctic. They determined that even in the most isolated areas, high concentrations of microplastics were common. Explaining this is easy, comments Dr. Bergmann: "It's readily apparent that the majority of the microplastic in the snow comes from the air.”

We already know from previous studies that the atmosphere is capable of transporting sand and pollen, traveling over 3,500 kilometers from the Sahara Desert to the northeast Atlantic and even the Arctic. Microplastics measure approximately the same size as dust and pollen, and it is therefore plausible that microplastics be transported in the same way by the atmosphere, explain the authors of the study.

Microplastics have been found in high levels in the Arctic. Photo: Pixabay

In order to count the microplastics, the researchers melt the snow and pour the meltwater through a filter. Following that process, reports Science Daily, “The residue trapped in the filter is then examined with an infrared microscope and depending on the type of plastic, different wavelengths of the infrared light are absorbed and reflected; in this way, an optical fingerprint can be used to determine what type of plastic they've found.” The study found that the highest concentration of microplastics was collected in Bavaria, where up to 154,000 particles of microplastics per liter of snow were recorded. In the Arctic, while much lower in comparison, levels still reached up to 14,400 particles per liter. The classes of plastics recorded ranged from nitrile rubber, acrylates to paint.

Gerdts explains that using the infrared spectroscopy method is more precise other methods. "We've automated and standardized the technique so as to rule out the errors that can creep in when manual analysis is used."

So, what does this mean in terms of microplastic distribution globally? Dr. Bergmann commented that transport by the atmosphere, “…could also explain the high amounts of microplastic that we've found in the Arctic sea ice and the deep sea in previous studies." She says that the team’s findings should beg the question for further investigation, elaborating: "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."

Sources: Science Daily, Science Advances

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
You May Also Like
AUG 19, 2021
Plants & Animals
The Hobbit's feeding biomechanics were similar to humans
AUG 19, 2021
The Hobbit's feeding biomechanics were similar to humans
New research suggests that the feeding biomechanics of Homo floresiensis (aka, the Hobbit) are similar to modern humans.
SEP 02, 2021
Chemistry & Physics
The Future of Room-Temperature Superconductors
SEP 02, 2021
The Future of Room-Temperature Superconductors
It begins with two diamonds, a pinch of carbon, sulfur, and a whiff of hydrogen gas. The result is the world’s fir ...
SEP 02, 2021
Microbiology
Microbes Create an Electrical Grid in Nature
SEP 02, 2021
Microbes Create an Electrical Grid in Nature
The world is full of single-celled organisms, which can be found virtually everywhere from hydrothermal vents in the dee ...
SEP 15, 2021
Plants & Animals
Using Food Waste To Make Rechargeable Batteries
SEP 15, 2021
Using Food Waste To Make Rechargeable Batteries
Back in 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that nearly 133 billion pounds of food went to waste, ...
SEP 28, 2021
Earth & The Environment
How to Save the World's Coral Reefs? Global Reforestation
SEP 28, 2021
How to Save the World's Coral Reefs? Global Reforestation
With recent news of the world's coral supply standing at just 50% of what it was in the 1950s, any strategies for protec ...
OCT 08, 2021
Earth & The Environment
Evidence of human activity 400,000 years ago in Saudi Arabia
OCT 08, 2021
Evidence of human activity 400,000 years ago in Saudi Arabia
Incredible new evidence pushed back Asia's earliest contact with hominins
Loading Comments...