Researchers find microplastics in Antarctic sea ice for the first time

A new study reveals that microplastics have been discovered in Antarctic sea ice for the first time, raising additional concerns over this type of pollution. The team behind the discovery was led by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS); they found dozens of bits of microplastics in a core of ice plucked from East Antarctica back in 2009.

Microplastics refer to the tiny bits of plastic that comes from larger pieces of plastic — they can include plastic fibers from netting and plastic containers, pieces of plastic bottles and other trash that slowly breaks down in the ocean, and even small microbeads included in some cosmetic products. These tiny bits of plastic have already been identified in Arctic sea ice and Antarctic surface water.

This new study, however, is the first to find the microplastics in Antarctic sea ice, as well, with more than 96 particles from 14 different sources found in the ice core sample. The researchers note that the majority of Antarctic ice melts and then reforms every year, offering the opportunity for it to pull in bits of microplastics from the surface water.

The study found that the Antarctic coastal sea ice contained larger microplastic particles than the ones found in Arctic ice, meaning the plastic had less time to break down. The researchers say this means the plastic originated from a more local source, such as equipment from researchers and tourists or something like discarded clothing.

When these particles become trapped in ice, they end up spending more time in the surface water rather than dropping down to the deeper parts of the ocean. As a result, the particles are more likely to be eaten by organisms that live in the area, including krill, which is a vital food source for the larger predators that feed in the region.