Plastic and traces of hazardous chemicals have been found in the majority of snow and ice samples taken earlier this year in Antarctica, one of the world’s last great wildernesses, according to a new study.
Researchers spent three months taking water and snow samples from remote areas of Antarctica earlier this year. These have now been analysed and researchers have confirmed the majority contained “persistent hazardous chemicals” or microplastics.
The findings come amid growing concern about the extent of the plastic pollution crisis which scientists have warned risks “permanent contamination” of the planet.
Thilo Maack takes snow samples on Greenwich Island in the Antarctic to test for environmental pollutants. Photograph: Paul Hilton/Paul Hilton / Greenpeace
. . . The new report by researchers at Greenpeace is part of global campaign to create the world’s biggest ocean sanctuary in the seas around Antarctica to protect the fragile ecosystem from industrial fishing and climate change.
Frida Bengtsson, of Greenpeace’s Protect the Antarctic campaign, said the findings proved that even the most remote areas of the planet were not immune from the impact of manmade pollution. “We need action at source, to stop these pollutants ending up in the Antarctic in the first place, and we need an Antarctic ocean sanctuary to give space for penguins, whales and the entire ecosystem to recover from the pressures they’re facing,” she said.
Seven of the eight sea-surface water samples tested contained microplastics such as microfibres. Seven of the nine snow samples tested contained detectable concentrations of the persistent hazardous chemicals – polyfluorinated alkylated substances, or PFAS. Researchers said the chemicals are widely used in many industrial processes and consumer products and have been linked to reproductive and developmental issues in wildlife. They said the snow samples gathered included freshly fallen snow, suggesting the hazardous chemicals had come from contaminated rain or snowfall.
Prof Alex Rogers, a specialist in sustainable oceans at the Oxford Martin school, Oxford University, said the discovery of plastics and chemicals in Antarctica confirmed that man-made pollutants were now affecting ecosystems in every corner of the world. And he warned the consequences of this pervasive contamination remained largely unknown. “The big question now is what are the actual consequences of finding this stuff here? Many of these chemicals are pretty nasty and as they move up the food chain they may be having serious consequences for the health of wildlife, and ultimately humans. The effects of microplastics on marine life, likewise, are largely not understood,” he said.
Bengtsson said: “Plastic has now been found in all corners of our oceans, from the Antarctic to the Arctic and at the deepest point of the ocean, the Mariana trench. We need urgent action to reduce the flow of plastic into our seas and we need large-scale marine reserves – like a huge Antarctic ocean sanctuary which over 1.6m people are calling for – to protect marine life and our oceans for future generations.”
The samples were gathered during a three-month Greenpeace expedition to the Antarctic from January to March 2018. The Guardian joined the trip for two weeks in February.
A decision on the sanctuary proposal, which is being put forward by the EU and supported by environmental campaign groups around the world, will be taken at the forthcoming meeting of the Antarctic Ocean Commission in Tasmania in October.
By Matthew Taylor, The Guardian
June 6, 2018