Synthetic fibers discovered in Antarctic air, seawater, sediments and sea ice

Synthetic fibers discovered in Antarctic air, seawater, sediments and sea ice

Polarized light microscopy image of a polyester textile fiber found in the sample. Photo credit: Nekton.

As nations gather in Uruguay to negotiate a new global plastics treaty, marine and forensic scientists are releasing new findings this week revealing the discovery of synthetic plastic fibers in air, seawater, sediments and sea ice in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea. The field research was conducted during an expedition to discover Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance. The results are published in the journal frontiers in marine science.

Fibrous polyesters, mainly from textiles, were found in all samples. The majority of the identified microplastic fibers were found in Antarctic air samples, showing that Antarctic animals and seabirds could breathe them.

“The problem of microplastic fibers is also an airborne problem, reaching even the last pristine environments on our planet,” explained co-author Professor Lucy Woodall, University of Oxford, Nekton Principal Scientist. “Synthetic fibers are the most prevalent form of microplastic pollution globally and tackling this problem must be at the heart of the Plastics Treaty negotiations.” Professor Woodall was the first to uncover the prevalence of plastic in the deep sea in 2014.

A model analysis of the trajectories found that areas with higher fiber counts were associated with winds from southern South America. The discovery shows that the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and the associated polar front do not act as an impenetrable barrier that would have prevented microplastics from entering the Antarctic region, as previously assumed.

“Ocean currents and winds are the vectors for plastic pollution, traveling across the globe and even to the most remote corners of the world,” said Nuria Rico Seijo, Nekton Research Scientist, Oxford, the study’s co-lead author. “The transboundary nature of microplastic pollution provides further evidence of the urgency and importance of a strong international agreement on plastic pollution.”

The team also found that the concentration of microplastics in sea ice is far higher than in other sample types. Studies show that every year microplastics are trapped as the sea ice layer forms.

“Sea ice is mobile, can travel great distances, and can reach the permanent ice shelves of the Antarctic continent, where it can be trapped indefinitely with its accumulated microplastic pollutants,” said Dr. Mánus Cunningham, Nekton Research Scientist, Oxford, the co-lead author of the research. “We believe that the uptake of microplastics in multi-year sea ice, combined with its seasonal changes, could also be viewed as a transient sink and as one of the main transporters of microplastics in Antarctica,” concluded Dr. Cunningham.

Synthetic fibers discovered in Antarctic air, seawater, sediments and sea ice as the 'untouched' continent becomes a sink for Plas

Density separation process during microplastic analysis of Weddell Sea Expedition samples. Photo credit: Nekton

Extensive investigations were also carried out on sediment samples collected during the Weddell Sea expedition at depths of 323 to 530 meters below the sea surface. “Our discovery of microplastics in seafloor sediment samples has provided evidence of a plastic sink deep in Antarctic waters,” said Professor Woodall.

“Once again, we have seen plastic pollution being transported long distances by wind, ice and ocean currents. Overall, the results of our research show how important it is to reduce plastic pollution worldwide.”

Scientific and forensic experts from 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. These include optical (polar light microscopy), chemical (Raman spectrometry) investigation technologies and even a special “crime scene” tape to identify polymer type. The modeling analysis used a method called Air Mass Back Trajectory Analysis.

“Our use of forensic approaches had two important benefits: improved methods to both reduce and monitor possible procedural contamination in the samples, and also a more detailed characterization of the microplastic beyond the polymer type, allowing for a better understanding of the number of possible sources. We would encourage future studies to use these forensic approaches to ensure more robust data is collected,” said Professor Claire Gwinnett of Staffordshire University.

According to the research team, the findings increase the urgency for a binding, globally agreed deal to prevent microplastics from entering the environment, particularly the oceans. In the run-up to discussions on the Global Plastic Treaty, they urge policymakers to:

  • Reducing plastic pollution and production worldwide by creating a robust global plastic agreement that builds on national and regional initiatives;
  • Align plastic reduction actions with natural and societal goals to achieve multiple positive outcomes for society;
  • Empower local communities to collaboratively develop and leverage programs that support full life cycle plastic waste management solutions.

They add that affected individuals can also do their part by adopting simple lifestyle habits to reduce synthetic microfiber pollution. These include:

  1. Load your washing machine: More freedom of movement in the laundry means that microfibers fall off.
  2. Wash at 30°C: Delicate cycles and lower temperatures reduce microfiber shedding.
  3. Skip the dryer: Tumble dryers produce about 40 times more microfibers than washing machines.
  4. Microfiber attachment for washing machines, eg GuppyFriend ( or Coraball (
  5. Choose natural fibers, e.g. organic natural fibers such as cotton, linen, hemp.
  6. Avoid microfiber cleaning cloths – use natural alternatives.
  7. Wash textiles less often

More information:
Eoghan M. Cunningham et al, The transport and fate of microplastic fibers in Antarctica: The role of multiple global processes, frontiers in marine science (2022). DOI: 10.3389/fmars.2022.1056081

Provided by the University of Oxford

Quote: Synthetic Fibers Discovered in Antarctic Air, Seawater, Sediment and Sea Ice (2022, November 23) Retrieved November 23, 2022 from seawater.html

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