When Melanie Bergmann, an ecologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, collected snow and ice samples for her new study, she had to work extra hard not to contaminate them. She and her colleagues always looked for the freshest snow. They always stood with their backs to the wind. They picked up the ice with unorthodox metal tools—including, at one point, a household soup ladle—and deposited it in glassware.
And—most unusually—they always worked with their bare hands, never touching the plastic gloves that most scientists automatically don in the field. “Plastic gloves,” Bergmann told me, “are not the best if you want to sample microplastics.”
In just the past decade, scientists have discovered that microplastics—defined as any plastic detritus that’s about the size of a sesame seed or smaller—are a major new pollutant, the spread of which we’re only now understanding. Microplastics are present in 94 percent of tap water in the United States, according to one study. They form as larger plastic items—toys, clothing, paint chips, car tires—get worn down and torn to shreds.
In a new study, published today in Science Advances, Bergmann and her colleagues looked at whether microplastics collect in the air as well. They looked for microplastics trapped in snow from the Alps, sea ice from the Arctic Ocean, and snow from the high Arctic island of Svalbard. Snow tends to be good at shaking out particles hanging in the air, so any microplastic in the snow would likely have come from the air, especially in the remote Arctic locations.
Not only did they find microplastics, the “sheer number” the team uncovered shocked her. “We did expect to find microplastics, but the numbers that we found were a big surprise,” she said. There were thousands of particles of microplastic in nearly every sample from the Arctic; a single liter of snow contained 14,000 grains of the stuff. Microplastic was even more abundant in Europe, where there were as many as 150,000 grains of microplastic per liter of snow.
To translate: If you melted down enough Arctic ice to fill a gallon milk jug, it might contain as many as 53,000 shreds of microplastic.
Those microplastics may have fallen as snow, but they arrived in the Arctic through the atmosphere. The study shows that microplastics, shorn from human products and carried by global trade winds, are now accumulating in some of the harshest, most remote places on Earth.
Plastic is underrated as a permanent transformative agent of the planet, not only through the fossil fuels where it originates, but how capitalism has found it so useful in so many forms, none of which ever break down and dissipate.