Penguins among microplastics!

Interest in microplastic contamination in Antarctica is very recent. For this reason, researchers from University of Koblenz – Landau (Germany) and Universidad de Concepcion (Chile) decided to find out a little more about what is happening in the land of the penguins.

King George Island is an area of great scientific and tourist activity in the Antarctic Peninsula. This region was considered pristine a few years ago. But nowadays it entails a broad diversity of chemical contamination.

So what were we looking for?

We wanted to assess the impact of human settlements on microplastic contamination in Antarctic soils. We collected surface soil samples through a transect of 5 sites from the settlements to areas in their absence, i.e. , in soils near the beach of Fildes Bay (Fig 1).

Additionally, we collected 5 samples along the intertidal zone to study the behavior of the effluent from these settlements (Fig 2). We chose to add a sixth sampling point in a very special area, Ardley Island, a protected area that is home to a large colony of penguins and that has no settlements thanks to the restrictions of the Antarctic Treaty.

Fig 1 – Human settlements in Antarctica (CC: A. Perfetti)
Fig 2 – Effluent along the intertidal zone (CC: A. Perfetti)

How did Antarctica surprise us?

Unfortunately, we confirmed the presence of microplastics in soils and in intertidal sediments. In soils, this occurs because the resins with which the buildings are painted release particles due to the meteorological conditions of cold, snow and wind close to 100 km/h. In addition, we verified the transport by a biovector from the terrestrial zone to the sea, mediated by an individual Gentoo penguin with a mesoplastic on its chest (Fig 3)

In the intertidal sediments we found PET plastic, widely used in clothing for cold climates. Their abundances were high in the points close to the effluent of the Chile base, coinciding with the presence of cotton. A particle similar to the ropes used in small boats was detected in the protected area of Ardley Island, which corroborates that entry restrictions are not a limitation for contamination with microplastics.

Fig 3 – Mesoplastic piece on P. papua (CC: A. Perfetti)

Is it possible to improve this situation?

It is very important to investigate microplastic contamination in Antarctica in order to properly manage its sources. For example, the detection of paint resins in Antarctic soils is relevant since to date these resins are not considered in microplastic studies despite their composition, high probability of detection and great transport capacity in the sea. On the other hand, the findings of PET in coastal waters corroborate a permanent source of microplastics, probably derived from the use of clothing for cold climates. Although it is impossible to do without this clothing, it is possible to manage more efficient wastewater treatment systems to avoid contaminating the environment. The identification of the sources of contamination by microplastics and their management is essential, especially in an ecosystem in which we do not know their impacts on the Antarctic biota.

This paper entitled ‘Occurrence and Distribution of Micropplastics in Soils and Intertidal Sediments at Fildes Bay, Maritime Antartica’ was written by Alessandra Perfetti, Alberto Araneda, Katherine Muñoz and Ricardo Barra and is published in Frontiers in Marine Science.