Snow falling in the Alps is full of plastic particles

New research from the Swiss Federal Laboratory for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA), the University of Utrecht, and the Central Institute of Meteorology and Geophysics in Austria reveals the enormous scale and scope of pollution detected transmitted through the atmosphere.

Research site at Sonnblick. ZAMG/Christian Schober image credit via Flickr.

The findings show that around 3,000 tons of nanoplastics are deposited in Switzerland each year, including in the most remote Alpine regions. Most are produced in cities around the country, but others are particles from the ocean that are carried into the atmosphere by waves. Some of these, the team explains, traveled as far as 2,000 kilometers in the air before settling, originating in the Atlantic Ocean.

Such results build on a group of previous studies showing that plastic pollution has become widespread on Earth, particularly as nanoplastics and microplastics are rampant on the planet.

Plastic snow

While we strongly believe that the Earth has a plastic problem, based on the overall data we have to date, the details of how nanoplastics move through the air are still poorly understood. According to the authors, the current study provides us with the most accurate profile of airborne plastic pollution to date.

For this study, the researchers developed a new chemical method that uses mass spectrometry to measure the plastic pollution levels of various samples. These samples were taken from a small area on the Hoher Sonnenblick mountain in Hohe Tauern National Park, Austria, at an altitude of about 3,100 meters above sea level. This area was chosen as an observatory of the Central Institute of Meteorology – Geodynamics and has been in operation here since 1886.

Samples were collected daily, in all weather, at 8 am. These include samples of the top layer of snow, which were harvested and handled with great care so as not to contaminate the nanoplastics from the air or the researchers’ clothes. According to their measurements, about 43 trillion small plastic particles land in Switzerland every year – the equivalent of about 3,000 tons.

In the lab, the team measured the nanoplastic content in each sample and then analyzed the particles to try and identify their source. Wind and weather data from across Europe are also used to help determine the origin of the particles. Most particles are likely generated and released into the atmosphere in dense urban areas. About a third of the particles found in the samples came from within 200 km. However, about 10% of the total (judging by their degree of degradation and other characteristics) was blown to the mountain more than 2000 km, from the Atlantic Ocean; These particles can be formed in the ocean from larger debris and introduced into the atmosphere by wave eruption.

Plastic nanoparticles are created by mechanical abrasion and weathering from larger pieces of plastic. They are light enough to be comparable to a gas in behavior. Their effects on human health are still unknown, but we do know that they go deep into our lungs, where they can enter our bloodstream. However, what they do there remains a mystery.

The current study doesn’t help us better understand their effects, but it does bring the scale of nanoplastic pollution into view. These estimates are very high compared to other studies, and more studies are needed to verify them – but for now, they paint a very interesting picture.

The article “Transporting nanoplastics to the remote Alps” was published published in the magazine Environmental pollution. Snow falling in the Alps is full of plastic particles

James Brien

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