Microplastics Discovered In Europe’s Largest Ice Cap – In an Isolated and Natural Region of Vatnajökull Glacier

In a new study in Sustainability, researchers from the University of Gothenburg, Reykjavik University (RU), and the Icelandic Meteorological Office explain their finding of microplastic in an isolated and natural region of the Vatnajokull glacier in Iceland, Europe’s largest ice cap. Microplastics may influence the rheological behavior and melting of glaciers, thus affecting the expected meltwater supplying to the oceans and rising sea levels.

The discovery of microplastic in the Vatnajökull glacier is reported for the first time. The team visualized and pick out microplastic particles of varied dimensions and materials by μ-Raman spectroscopy and optical microscopy.

The debate about microplastics has largely been focused on the contamination of the sea, but hitherto small study has been conducted on plastic in the earth’s ice caps. To date, microplastic particles have been found in the Ecuadorian Andes, in the Italian Alps, and icebergs at Svalbard. “Identifying the short and long-term impacts of microplastic and its distribution on the dynamics of ice is essential,” said Dr. Hlynur Stefansson, Associate Professor at the RU Department of Engineering and leading author of the study.

Ice cave under Vatnajökull Glacier.

The discoveries verify that microplastic particles are spread through the environment. “We do not completely determine the pathways for microplastic particles in our atmosphere. Is the plastic brought by rain and snow? We want to understand more about the causes. The samples we took are from a very isolated and natural area in Vatnajokull glacier, with no easy path, so direct contamination from human activities is not possible,” Dr. Stefansson says.

“We also need to identify the short and long-term outcomes of microplastic on the dynamics of the ice and if they contribute to the melting of glaciers. If that is the case, it will play a crucial part in the coming meltwater contribution to the oceans and rising sea levels. The plastic particles deteriorate at a very slow rate in the cold glacier conditions and can expand and persist in the glaciers for a very long time. Ultimately, however, they will be discharged from the ice, adding pollution in rivers and the aquatic ecosystem. Hence, it is very necessary to plan and understand the behavior and dispersal of microplastics in glaciers on a global scale.”

Journal Reference

“Microplastics in Glaciers: First Results from the Vatnajökull Ice Cap” by Matthias Konrad-Schmolke, Hlynur Stefánsson, Einar Jón Ásbjörnsson, Mark Peternell, Erik Sturkell, and Hrafnhildur Hannesdóttir, Sustainability.

DOI: 10.3390/su13084183

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