Plastic Snow

At the top of the world
you sparkle with seclusion,
sheathed in winter’s blade
from the grubby tracks
of those tainted,
foul machines.
But something hidden
lurks beneath,
your flawless lustre
gently glazed
by films of filth
and trade
and greed.
Invisible dust that
falls like a blizzard
across the purity
of your pristine skin,
marking you for ever
by the ruined nature
of our see-through sin.

The Sonnblick Observatory at the top of Hoher Sonnenblick, where the measurements for this study were made (Image Credit: M. Staudinger, ZAMG).

This poem is inspired by recent research, which has found evidence of nanoplastics being transported to the remote, high-altitude Austrian Alps.

Plastics are one of the most commonly used materials, with an annual production of 359 million tonnes worldwide, and it is estimated that around 5,000 million tonnes of plastics have been disposed in the environment to date. Once in the environment, plastics can fragment from bigger to much smaller particles, all the way down to microplastics (i.e. those plastics that are less than 5 mm in diameter) and nanoplastics (i.e. those plastics that are less than 1 micrometre in diameter; for context the width of a human hair is generally between 17 and 180 micrometres). In the case of microplastics, one of the main potential risks are them becoming stuck in the guts of animals. Nanoplastics on the other hand are so small, that they can penetrate tissues and organs, entering the bloodstream and thereby potentially causing serious health impacts for humans (as well as all other living organisms). While more data are becoming available on urban and remote microplastics pollution, the concentration of airborne nanoplastics has not been measured yet in the natural environment, primarily due to analytical challenges.

In this new study, researchers studied a small area at an altitude of just over 3,000 m at the top of the mountain Hoher Sonnenblick in the Hohe Tauern National Park in Austria. Every day for a period of six weeks (and in all weather conditions) scientists removed a part of the top layer of snow around a marker at 8 AM and carefully stored it. They then measured these layers in the laboratory to determine the amount of nanoplastics that had been deposited during this time period. From their analysis, the researchers found more than 200 billion nanoplastic particles were deposited per square meter of surface snow each week, equating to approximately 42 kg of nanoplastics falling over 1 km2 every year. Given the extremely remote location of the measurement station this raises significant concerns about the amount of nanoplastics that are being deposited in our environment. While further measurements of nanoplastics in urban, rural, and remote areas are now needed to fully assess the extent of nanoplastics pollution, it is clear that this is a huge problem with dramatic consequences for both environmental and human health.

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