Spanish researchers first to discover microplastics in the air in Antarctica

by Lorraine Williamson
microplastics in Antarctica

Researchers from the University of Zaragoza (UNIZAR), the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM), and the University of the Basque Country (UCM) have discovered microplastics around Antarctica. 

According to the UCM, researchers also observed various anthropogenic aerosols. These include black carbon, biological aerosols such as bacteria, and minerals including ammonium nitrate, syngenite, and nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium fertilisers. 

Environmental pollution

The article, published in the scientific journal Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy, shows that certain pollutants from nearby areas, the increase in the number of cruise ships, and the intense shipping traffic at Cape Horn are managing to penetrate the Antarctic atmosphere.     

This study was part of the ‘Characterisation of atmospheric aerosols in the Antarctic’ project of the Ministry of Science and Innovation. It was led by UNIZAR and UCM since 2018, with the participation of the University Defence Centre of Zaragoza, the University of La Rioja, and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). 

The UCM points out that to conduct the study, atmospheric, water, snow, and soil samples were taken. Therefore, these were studied by applying an analytical method based on Raman spectroscopy and SEM-EDS. The study also concludes that environmental pollution is ‘a fact of life in the Antarctic’. 

Cogesa Expats

The coordinator of the Chemistry and Environment research group at the University of Zaragoza, Jesús Anzano, says the pollutants were collected in the air filters of a collector located on Deception Island. This is ‘one of the cleanest and purest enclaves on the planet’. The researcher warns that this ‘demonstrates the seriousness and extent of environmental pollution’. 

Deception Island, northwest of the Antarctic Peninsula, has been home to the Spanish Antarctic Base (BAE) Gabriel de Castilla since 1989. Every polar summer, from December to March, dozens of scientists come here to carry out their research projects.  

First measurements of microplastics in the air 

The presence of microplastics had already been observed in penguin droppings. However, this is the first time that the presence of these pollutants has been detected in air filters. This is due in part to the scarcity of recycling of the plastic used. Because this breaks down into microparticles that pollute the water and air. And therefore the food of Antarctic fauna,” concludes Anzano.  

Jorge Cáceres, a researcher in the Analytical Chemistry Department at UCM, claims that these are ‘the first’ measurements of aerosols of microplastic particles in the Antarctic atmosphere.  

Finally, Cáceres added that the study also examined the possible origin of these aerosols and revealed four different local anthropogenic sources for the carbon particles, as well as long-range atmospheric transport of microplastic and bacterial particles. 


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