Microplastics have been found in Antarctic sea ice for the first time, scientists say.
The study, published in the May edition of the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, analysed an ice core collected in East Antarctica in 2009. Some 96 tiny particles of plastic were identified from 14 different types of polymer.
However the particles were still relatively large in size suggesting that they had come from local pollution and had less time to break down than if they had been swept a long way by ocean currents.
The ice core came from sea ice attached to land and averaged almost 12 microplastic particles per litre.
According to NOAA, plastic wreaks havoc on marine ecosystems. As plastic swirls around in the water, much of it breaks down into tiny pieces, called microplastics.
Because the microplastics were trapped in the sea ice, the particles remained for longer near the surface, increasing the chance of them being consumed by krill, a small, shrimp-like crustacean that is a food source for larger marine mammals further up the food chain.
There is also a human health risk from plastic entering the food chain with nearly a billion people around the world consuming seafood as their primary source of protein.
The discovery was made by a research team from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies.
Anna Kelly, from the University of Tasmania who authored the study, noted that plastic has been recorded before in Arctic sea ice, as well as in the surface waters and sediments of the Antarctic Ocean, but that this is believed to be the first time microplastics have been found in Antarctic sea ice.
She told The Maritime Executive: “It is worth noting that plastic contamination of West Antarctic sea ice may be even greater than in our ice core from the East, as the Antarctic Peninsula hosts the bulk of the continent’s tourism, research stations and marine traffic.”
Earlier this year, a massive hole was discovered in Antarctic’s so-called "doomsday glacier" suggesting it may be melting even faster than scientists have long feared.
The massive Thwaites ridge would send sea levels surging by up to two feet if it dissolved completely – enough to submerge major coastal cities across the globe.
Because the UK-sized chunk acts as a barrier protecting the vast West Antarctica, its melting would also destabilise the entire region by exposing it to warmer waters.
Scientists say a cavity beneath the glacier is far larger than previously thought – making it far more vulnerable to collapse.
The void, in total, is about six miles long and 1,000 feet deep, representing the loss of some 14 billion tons of ice.
“The size of the cavity is surprising, and, as it melts, it’s causing the glacier to retreat,” said Pietro Milillo, a NASA radar scientist who led the new research into Thwaites.