Scientists say they've found an abundance of tiny plastic particles in Arctic snow, indicating that so-called microplastics are being sucked into the atmosphere and carried long distances to some of the remotest corners of the planet.
The researchers examined snow collected from sites in the Arctic, northern Germany, the Bavarian and Swiss Alps and the North Sea island of Heligoland.
"While we did expect to find microplastics, the enormous concentrations surprised us," said Melanie Bergmann, a researcher at the Alfred-Wegener-Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany.
Previous studies have found microplastics — which are created when man-made materials break apart and defined as pieces smaller than 5 millimeters — in the air of Paris, Tehran and Dongguan, China.
The new research demonstrated the fragments may become airborne in a way similar to dust, pollen and fine particulate matter from vehicle exhausts. Bergmann, who co-authored the study in Science Advances, said the highest concentrations of microplastics were found in the Bavarian Alps.
Although the Arctic samples were less contaminated, the third-highest concentration in the samples — 14,000 particles per liter — came from an ice floe in the Fram Strait off eastern Greenland, she said. On average, the researchers found 1,800 particles per liter in the samples taken from that region.
Biologist Martin Wagner said that, based on the study, "I would conclude that we very much underestimate the actual microplastics levels in the environment."