Urgent call to monitor airborne microplastics that could spread around the world in days

Microplastics can significantly amplify global warming, according to a new study.

Scientists from several German research institutions – including the GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Kiel – have found that up to 27.5 million tons of microplastics are transported thousands of miles around the world by ocean air, snow, sea spray and fog every year.

Their new overview study shows that wind can transport these particles over great distances — and it has the ability to do so much faster than water. Microplastics can travel from their place of origin to the most remote corners of the planet within days.

The team of 33 international researchers warns that this could affect the surface climate and the health of local ecosystems – when, for example, dark microplastic particles covering snow and ice reduce their ability to reflect sunlight and promote melting as a result.

dr. Melanie Bergmann of the AWI Institute in the German city of Bremerhaven collects snow samples.
Deonie Allen, University of Strathclyde/Zenger

The research also shows that microplastic particles can serve as condensation nuclei for water vapor. As a result, they influence cloud formation and – in the long term – the climate.

The scientists warn that the level of plastic pollution could reach 88 million tons per year by 2040. They underline that plastic particles have been detected in all areas of the environment, such as water bodies, soil and air.

Traveling through ocean currents and rivers, the tiny plastic particles can even reach the Arctic, Antarctic or ocean depths.

dr. Melanie Bergmann conducts research on microplastics and marine litter at the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) in Bremerhaven and is a biologist and co-author of the study. She explained: “Air is a much more dynamic medium than water. As a result, micro- and nanoplastics can penetrate much faster into those regions of our planet that are the most remote and still largely untouched.

“We need to integrate micro- and nanoplastics into our air pollution measurements, ideally on an international scale as part of global networks.”

Research into microplastics
dr. Melanie Bergmann of the AWI Institute in the German city of Bremerhaven takes water samples in the Arctic.
Deonie Allen/Zenger

Professor dr. Tim Butler, leader of a research group at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) and co-author of the study, said: “There are so many aspects of the emissions, transport and effects of microplastics in the atmosphere that we still not quite understand.”

“This publication reveals the gaps in our knowledge – and presents a roadmap for the future.”

Microplastics are fragments of any type of plastic that are less than five millimeters (0.20 inches) in length, according to the European Chemicals Agency and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

They cause pollution by invading natural ecosystems from a variety of sources, including cosmetics, clothing, food packaging and industrial processes.

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.

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