Shocking Study Reveals How Oceans Release Microplastics Into the Atmosphere

Microplastic wastes can be found in marine environments and far-off places worldwide.

Per research spearheaded by Dr Barbara Scholz-Bottcher associated with the University of Oldenburg, these particles originate on the land. Still, they are released into the atmosphere once again via the sea.

To reach the Arctic area, the researchers reportedly collected air samples from several key points along the coast of Norway. The most recent publication of the findings is in the academic journal Nature Communications.

Representation Image

Through the study, there is a presentation of data on the mass load of different kinds of plastic in the marine atmosphere for the first time, mentioned by Isabel Goßmann, a doctoral candidate associated with the University of Oldenburg’s Institute for Chemistry and Biology of the Marine Environment (ICBM).

Isabel is also the first author of the paper. The research team collected these samples during an expedition with the Research Vessel Heincke in 2021.

The ultimate northernmost destination was Bear Island, the southern-most island of the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between the archipelago’s largest island, Spitsbergen, and the mainland. The team further used two devices to gather relevant air samples. The devices were pumped in the air actively and mounted on the bow of the research ship at a height of 12 meters.

The scientists further analyzed the air samples with pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Via this method, they could identify and quantify the different kinds of plastics in the atmosphere via thermal degradation and selective analysis.

They then performed some model calculations and reconstructed the particles’ sources and distribution paths, each of which is just about a few thousandths of a millimetre.

The analysis disclosed the omnipresence of these polyester particles. The polyethene terephthalate particles that presumably reached the atmosphere as textile fibres were seen in the samples.

Other plastic kinds were also present, including polystyrene and polypropylene polycarbonate. Tire wear particles and tiny debris that abrade from tires when driving and braking were recognized as another key source of microplastics. The researchers measured the concentrations of about 37.5 nanograms (one nanogram equals one-billionth of one gram) of microplastics in one cubic meter of air. The pollutants are ubiquitous. We see them in remote polar areas, too, per Goßmann stressed.

Until now, only a bit was known regarding the micro-plastic pollution levels, including tire wear particles in the marine atmosphere. Only a few studies on the concentration of these pollutants in the air were mentioned by the team leader Scholz-Böttcher.

Model calculations have indicated that microplastics in the marine atmosphere come from direct sources on the land and the sea.

The team reportedly posits that plastic particles floating close to the sea surface enter the atmosphere via bursting air bubbles produced in stormy weather or sea spray.

Microplastics can find their way into the seawater via rivers and the atmosphere – particles are thoroughly washed out of the atmosphere by rain, for instance. Yet another potential source is vessel traffic: in a previous study, a team spearheaded by Scholz-Böttcher demonstrated that the paint and coatings used on vessels are the primary sources of these microplastics in the open North Sea.

In the current study, chemicals like polyurethanes and epoxy resins that are typically used in paints and coatings for vessels were found in air samples.

Besides researchers from the ICBM, many scientists from the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) based in Bremerhaven, the Alfred Wegener Institute, the Technische Universität Berlin, and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (famous as the NIPH), and the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (abbreviated the NILU) were part of the larger research team.

References: Hindustan Times, Sci Tech Daily

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