Microplastic Fibres Discovered in Antarctic Weddell Sea

Microplastic Fibres Discovered in Antarctic Weddell Sea

Nations meet conducted this week in Uruguay for the negotiation of a new Global Plastic Treaty, where the marine and forensic scientists publish new results that reveal the discovery of synthetic plastic fibers in air, seawater, sediment and sea ice sampled in the Antarctic Weddell Sea. 

The field study was initiated during an expedition to find Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance. 

All the samples showed the presence of fibrous polyesters, mainly from textiles. The Antarctic air was also examined which showed the presence of the majority of microplastic fibres, that indicates that Antarctic animals and seabirds could be breathing them.

Professor Lucy Woodall, University of Oxford, Nekton Principal Scientist, is the first who revealed the prevalence of plastic in the deep sea in 2014.

He stated, “The issue of microplastic fibres is also an airborne problem reaching even the last remaining pristine environments on our planet. Synthetic plastic fibers are the most prevalent form of microplastic pollution globally and tackling this issue must be at the heart of the Plastic Treaty negotiations.”

The concentration of microplastic fibres was also discovered by the team to be far higher in sea ice than in other sample types. Research indicates that microplastics are being trapped during the creation of the sea-ice layer every year.

A modeling analysis of air trajectories revealed that areas with higher numbers of fibers were associated with winds coming from southern South America.

It has also been discovered that the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and the associated polar front is not acting as an impenetrable barrier which would have prevented microplastics from entering the Antarctic region, as was thought earlier.

Nuria Rico Seijo, Nekton Research Scientist, Oxford, the co-lead author of the research, said, “Ocean currents and winds are the vectors for plastic pollution to travel across the globe and even to the remotest corners of the world. The transboundary nature of microplastic fibres pollution provides more evidence for the urgency and importance of a strong international plastic pollution treaty.”

Another co-lead author of the research, Dr. Mánus Cunningham, Nekton Research Scientist, Oxford, says, “Sea ice is mobile, can travel vast distances and reach the permanent ice shelves of the Antarctica continent where it can be trapped indefinitely with its gathered microplastic pollutants. We believe the acquisition of microplastics in the multi-year sea ice combined with its seasonal changes could also be considered a temporary sink and one of the main transporters of microplastics within the Antarctic region”. 

Apart from this a broad study was performed on sediment samples that have been recovered at depths varying from 323 to 530 m below the sea’s surface at the time of the Weddell Sea Expedition. Referring to this Professor Woodall says, “Our discovery of microplastics in seabed sediment samples has revealed evidence of a plastic sink in the depths of the Antarctic waters,”

“Yet again we have seen that plastic pollution is being transported great distances by wind, ice and sea currents. The results of our research collectively demonstrate the vital importance of reducing plastic pollution globally”, he further added.

The scientific and forensic experts at Nekton’s Oxford University and collaborating laboratories (Staffordshire University, University of Cape Town and Nelson Mandela University) used a range of investigative methods to analyze the samples in the study.

The optical (Polarized Light Microscopy), chemical (Raman Spectrometry) investigative technologies and even a specialist adhesive “crime scene” tape to identify the polymer type, are some of the methods. The modeling analysis used a method called Air Mass Back Trajectory analysis.

Professor Claire Gwinnett of Staffordshire University, said, “Our use of forensic science approaches had two important benefits; improved methods for both the reduction and monitoring of possible procedural contamination in the samples, and also more detailed characterization of the microplastics, beyond just polymer type, allowing for better understanding of the number of possible sources. We would encourage future studies to harness these forensic approaches to ensure more robust data is gathered,”

According to the research team, the findings add urgency for a binding, globally agreed treaty to prevent microplastics from entering the environment, particularly oceans.

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