Synthetic Fibres Add to the Worry of Antarctica

In a significant revelation, researchers have found that the grounding line of the southern Ronne Ice Shelf in Antarctica can move up to 15 km (six miles) with changing tides.

The discovery of synthetic plastic fibres in air, seawater, sediment and sea ice sampled in the Antarctic Weddell Sea has once again shown how big the threat plastics and even reaching the last remaining pristine environments.

Scientists from the University of Oxfordand Nekton (a not-for-profit research institute) held the study “‘The transport and fate of micro plastic fibres in the Antarctic: The role of multiple global processes”. The results are published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

The researchers said that they came across fibrous polyesters, primarily from textiles, in all samples.. They also found that majority of micro plastic fibres identified were found in the Antarctic air samples, revealing that Antarctic animals and sea birds could be breathing them.

‘The issue of micro plastic fibres is also an airborne problem reaching even the last remaining pristine environments on our planet’, stated co-author Lucy Woodall, a Professor in the University of Oxford’s Department of Biology and Principal Scientist at Nekton. ‘Synthetic fibres are the most prevalent form of micro plastic pollution globally and tackling this issue must be at the heart of the Plastic Treaty negotiations.’ Professor Woodall was the first to reveal the prevalence of plastic in the deep sea in 2014.


The researchers also noted that areas with higher numbers of fibres were associated with winds coming from southern South America. They showed that Antarctic Circumpolar Current and the associated polar front is not, as previously thought, acting as an impenetrable barrier which would have prevented micro plastics from entering the Antarctic region.

“Ocean currents and winds are the vectors for plastic pollution to travel across the globe and even to the remotest corners of the world,” said Nuria Rico Seijo, Nekton Research Scientist, the co-lead author of the research. ‘The transboundary nature of micro plastics pollution provides more evidence for the urgency and importance of a strong international plastic pollution treaty.’

The concentration of micro plastics was also discovered by the team to be far higher in sea ice than in other sample types. Research indicates that micro plastics are being trapped during the creation of the sea ice layer every year.

“Sea ice is mobile, can travel vast distances and reach the permanent ice shelves of the Antarctica continent where it can be trapped indefinitely with its gathered micro plastic pollutants’, shared Dr Mánus Cunningham, Nekton Research Scientist, the co-lead author of the research. ‘We believe the acquisition of micro plastics in the multi-year sea ice combined with its seasonal changes could also be considered a temporary sink and one of the main transporters of micro plastics within the Antarctic region.”


The researchers also extracted sediment samples retrieved at depths ranging from 323 to 530 metres below the sea’s surface during the Weddell Sea Expedition. “Our discovery of micro plastics in seabed sediment samples has revealed evidence of a plastic sink in the depths of the Antarctic waters,” said Professor Woodall. “Yet again we have seen that plastic pollution is being transported great distances by wind, ice, and sea currents. The results of our research collectively demonstrate the vital importance of reducing plastic pollution globally.”

  • Reduce plastic pollution and production globally, by creating a robust global plastics treaty that builds on national and regional initiatives;
    Align plastic reduction actions with natural and societal targets to achieve multiple positive outcomes for society;
    Empower local communities to co-develop and use programmes that support full life-cycle solutions to plastic waste management.
  • concerned individuals can also play their part by adopting simple lifestyle habits to reduce synthetic microfibre pollution.


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