Snow is generally seen as essentially clean and free of pollution but following recent studies of the snow in the Arctic this is far from the truth.
A journal – Science Advances has published results that should shock and cause alarm bells to ring about our current use of plastics and other non sustainable materials (if they weren’t ringing already!).
Snow has generally formed around dust or other airborne impurities but this has now changed. In addition to snow forming as it always has, the snow is now forming around microplastic particles that are carried from near and far. The microplastic particles are small enough to become airborne and travel thousands of miles through wind streams until they combine with the super cooled water and it comes down as snow. As we know snow covers everything from the highest peaks to the beautiful pine tree and everything in between but now within the snow is the plastic which is so beautifully hidden and almost undetectable. It is estimated that 2 tonnes of microplastic fall across France every year. The microplastics are everywhere and even make up some of the pistes upon which we ski.
“Traces of plastic, rubber, varnish, paint and possibly synthetic fibres have been found in snow samples across the world.”
Research has been carried out by Scientists at Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research and the Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research and it has been found that for every litre of snow found in the Arctic there are over 10,000 particles of microplastic. The sheer volume of microplastic particles found in the region which is often viewed as one of the last unpolluted parts of the planet took them by surprise. Other research carried out in the Swiss Alps and parts of Germany has found the concentration to be much higher, in one case from Bavaria it was up to 200,000 particles per litre.
The German scientists collected samples from the remote Svalbard Islands using the most basic of equipment: a simple spoon and a canning jar. These collected samples were transferred to the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany. The team melted the samples of snow and poured the water through a fine filter, and then examined the trapped residue with an infrared microscope. According to the scientists the particles were so small that it was incredibly difficult to determine their origin. They found traces of plastic, rubber, varnish, paint, and possibly synthetic fibres. The scientists said that the majority of the particles examined fell into the smallest size range which meant a large amount of the particles were below the detection limit of 11 micrometers. The plastic was also mixed in with plant cellulose and the fur of animals which naturally get taken by the wind.
“Microplastic concentrations in snow were very high, indicating significant contamination of the atmosphere. During its passage through the atmosphere, snow binds airborne particles and pollutants, which are eventually deposited on Earth’s surfaces,
“It’s readily apparent that the majority of microplastic in the snow comes from the air,” head scientist Melanie Bergmann said. “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,”
“We expected to find some contamination but to find this many microplastics was a real shock,” Melanie also said that the team currently don’t know “if the plastics will be harmful to human health or not. But we need to take much better care of the way we’re treating our environment.” Other studies have concluded that we are eating roughly a credit cards worth of plastic every week but this doesn’t come simply from inhalation.
“Large dust particles are transported over distances of 3,500 kilometres from the Sahara to the North Atlantic. This is similar to the distance between our Arctic sites and Europe, which happens to be the most important pathway in terms of wind-driven transport of mercury to the Arctic.”
If the plastics are found in every area of the planet from the remotest and most fragile locations such as the lowest point in the world – the Mariana trench (Where a plastic bag was found at a depth of 10,898 meters) and the pristine snow of the Arctic then it has truly penetrated every facet of nature. The consequences of this are still unknown but eating plastic regularly, and finding them everywhere surely cannot have positive consequences.
What can we do to stop this and fight back against it? The question is not an easy one to fully answer but it is best to start somewhere rather than to wait for a complete answer and do nothing. Thinking about the items you buy and the items you use can make a difference, allowing yourself to use items that are reusable and are not tossed out after a single or several uses can make an easy difference to how much rubbish we make as individuals. Thinking about what we eat, how it was raised and where it comes from can help to reduce our environmental footprint. Thinking about the clothing that we buy can make a difference, funding companies that damage and harm the environment only leads to further problems. Trying to consider a few things about the clothing, the materials that it is made from, are they sustainable? Is it made of natural materials or man made? Will it biodegrade or take centuries to only break down into more and more microscopic particles? Is it resource intensive? Does it use insane amounts of water or heavy industrial chemicals to create? Does it last long enough to justify the energy used to manufacture it? Fast fashion is renowned to fall apart and break after a few months or even a few wears and is a disaster on many fronts.
Taking lots of little steps can make a change and together they can make a difference, talking about the issues and bringing them up in conversation can help spread awareness and enable others to make their own little changes. With enough little changes, together, we can change the world.