Microplastics, the tiny bits of plastic that cover everything from glitter to fibers rubbed off larger products, can be found mixed in snow in remote places that include the Arctic, according to a new study. Researchers found more than 10,000 microplastics per liter of snow in the Arctic, a surprising number that reveals even the most remote places on Earth aren’t protected from humanity’s plastics problem.
The snow samples were collected from the Svalbard islands, as well as from sites in Switzerland and Germany. Microplastics — meaning plastic pieces measuring less than 5mm in size — were found from a variety of sources, some of them linked to rubber tires and paint.
Unlike more inland regions, Svalbard is quite isolated and mostly frozen, making it unclear how this huge abundance of plastic bits made its way to the remote location. The study indicates that wind may be carrying microplastics, which are drawn into the atmosphere and deposited back on Earth with rain or snow.
Many of the particles that were found in Arctic snow traveled long distances, including from Asia and Europe, contaminating what was thought to be one of the most pristine places left on Earth. It’s unclear what health effects these airborne microplastics may have on humans who inhale them.
Though microplastics are deliberately made in some cases, such as ‘microbeads’ used in some cosmetic products, many are the result of degrading larger plastics and damage to bigger items. Ships, for example, lose small bits of paint and varnish when they collide with ice. Abandoned netting, lost containers, and other products end up degrading in the environment, adding to a problem with no easy solution.