Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that are less than 5 mm in size. They can come from the breakdown of larger plastic items or from the manufacturing of small plastic products. Microplastics are a serious environmental problem, as they can harm marine life and enter the food chain.
One of the places where microplastics have been found is Antarctica, a remote and pristine region that is home to many unique species of wildlife. Scientists are concerned about the impact of microplastic pollution on the Antarctic ecosystem and the potential for microplastic transfer through the food web.
To study the amount and types of microplastics in Antarctica, scientists are using nuclear science to analyze the region’s waters, sediments, and even penguin droppings. This is a new joint investigation launched this weekend by the U.N. nuclear agency and an ocean conservation group.
Penguin scats reveal microplastic ingestion
One of the methods that scientists are using to assess the occurrence of microplastics in Antarctica is to collect and examine the scats of gentoo penguins, a top predator in the Antarctic region. Penguin scats are a proof of ingestion, as they contain the undigested parts of their prey, such as fish, squid, and krill.
By extracting and identifying the microplastics from the penguin scats, scientists can learn about the sources, composition, and abundance of microplastics in the Antarctic marine environment. They can also compare the microplastic levels in different locations and seasons, and evaluate the potential effects of microplastic ingestion on penguin health and behavior.
A previous study found that 20% of penguin scats from two islands in the Antarctic region contained microplastics, consisting mainly of fibers and fragments with different sizes and polymer types. The mean abundance of microplastics was 0.23 ± 0.53 items per individual scat, which was lower than the values reported for seabirds in other regions of the world.
Water and sediment samples provide more information on microplastic distribution
Another method that scientists are using to measure microplastics in Antarctica is to collect and analyze water and sediment samples from different depths and locations. Water and sediment samples can provide more information on the spatial and temporal distribution of microplastics, as well as their physical and chemical characteristics.
To detect and identify the microplastics in water and sediment samples, scientists are using a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to measure the molecular structure of substances. NMR spectroscopy can help to determine the polymer type, shape, size, and surface properties of microplastics.
By combining the data from water and sediment samples with the data from penguin scats, scientists can get a more comprehensive picture of the microplastic pollution in Antarctica and its implications for the marine ecosystem and the food web.
The importance of monitoring and reducing microplastic pollution in Antarctica
The Antarctic region is one of the most vulnerable and valuable areas on the planet, as it plays a key role in regulating the global climate and hosts a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna. However, the Antarctic region is also facing multiple threats from human activities, such as climate change, overfishing, and pollution.
Microplastic pollution is one of the emerging challenges that needs to be addressed urgently, as it poses a risk to the health and survival of Antarctic wildlife and the functioning of the Antarctic ecosystem. Microplastics can also have negative consequences for human health, as they can accumulate in the tissues of animals that are consumed by people, such as fish and seafood.
Therefore, it is important to monitor and reduce microplastic pollution in Antarctica, as well as in other parts of the world. This requires the cooperation and collaboration of governments, organizations, industries, and individuals, who need to adopt more sustainable and responsible practices to prevent and minimize the production and disposal of plastic waste.