It is one of the world’s most remote locations and home to few inhabitants, but despite this, researchers say they have discovered plastic microfibres for the first time in Antarctic sea ice.
- Researchers found 96 microplastic particles from 14 different types of polymer, including the material used in plastic bags
- It’s believed to be the first time plastics have been found in an ice core in Antarctica
- Local pollution from boat traffic, tourism and researchers is the likely source of the plastic microfibres
The pollution was discovered by a team of Tasmanian researchers who took an ice core from the eastern side of the continent in 2009.
Antarctica Ice Tweet
The lead researcher with the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS), Anna Kelly, said the ice core, which was kept in a freezer for years, was recently melted down and its contents put under the microscope.
“If we’ve got plastic particles in Antarctica, in one of the most remote habitats on Earth, [then plastics] are extremely widespread and we are having a big impact even in places that most of us will never get to visit,” Ms Kelly said.
While microplastics have previously been found in sea ice in the northern hemisphere and in sea surface water samples in Antarctica, this is believed to be the first time microplastics have been identified in an ice core from Antarctica.
Ms Kelly said the research was a complicated process that took about a year of laboratory work.
Lead scientist Anna Kelly says the research took a year to complete. (Supplied)
“We had to do quite a few test runs to make sure no plastic from me or from anywhere in the lab was getting into the ice, so I actually made some fake ice cores and practised,” she said.
“The plan was to cut it up into different sections, melt the different sections, filter the water and then look at the filter under a microscope to see what type of plastics we had.
“I had a special body suit I would wear over all of my clothing so that none of my sweaters or jumpers would contaminate the sample,” Ms Kelly said.
Plastic bag particles found
The researchers from IMAS and the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) found 96 microplastic particles in the decade-old ice core from 14 different types of polymer, including polyethylene which is used in plastic bags.
Other fibres identified were polyester and nylon.
Ms Kelly said the amount of microplastics found equated to almost 12 particles per litre.
“The more microplastics you have in the sea ice, the easier the ice melts, so it could have some big implications for biogeochemical cycles,” she said.
“And if the plastics are small enough, it could have some big implications if they get out of the ice and how that is affecting the marine life in the Antarctic.”
Boat traffic, tourism likely sources of pollution
Researchers believe the pollution most likely came from somewhere nearby due to the large size of the microfibres.
Once the sea ice was melted, 96 microplastic particles were found beneath a microscope. (Supplied)
“The microplastic polymers in our ice core were larger than those in the Arctic, which may indicate local pollution sources because the plastic has less time to break down into smaller fibres than if transported long distances on ocean currents,” Ms Kelly said.
“It could be coming from the continent and travelling through the currents, it could be coming from boat traffic or more local pollution like tourism or researchers, but we don’t have any solid data on that yet,” she said.
Ms Kelly, who grew up in America before moving to Tasmania, said she hoped to take ice core samples from the western side of Antarctica to help determine more about the sources of pollution.
“In my PhD I’m doing right now, I’m looking at more ice cores and broadening the scope of the study,” she said.
“It is worth noting that plastic contamination of west Antarctic sea ice may be even greater than in our ice core from the east, as the Antarctic Peninsula hosts the bulk of the continent’s tourism, research stations and marine traffic.”
Researchers also hope to discover if sea ice contains more pollution now, compared with the 2009 sample.
The research has been published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.