At the Marambio Argentine Antarctic Base Photo K Laffan IAEA

IAEA Scientists Embark on Antarctic Mission to Research Microplastic Impact

At the Marambio Argentine Antarctic Base Photo K Laffan IAEA
The President of Argentina, Javier Milei, and IAEA Director General, Rafael Mariano Grossi, at the Marambio Argentine Antarctic Base. (PHOTO: K. Laffan/IAEA)

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in cooperation with Argentina, launched its first scientific research expedition to investigate the presence of microplastics in Antarctica as part of efforts to combat this growing environmental problem, even in the planet’s most remote areas.

The President of Argentina, Javier Milei, and IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi joined the IAEA scientific team at the Marambio and Esperanza Argentine Antarctic Bases to mark the start of their mission. Defence Minister Luis Petri, Interior Minister Guillermo Francos, and Foreign Minister Diana Mondino were also present. The two-person research team will then set off for one month to assess the impact of microplastics by investigating their occurrence and distribution in seawater, lakes, sediments, sand, discharge water, and animals of the Antarctic ecosystem near the Argentine Carlini scientific research station.

The IAEA mission to Antarctica, the world’s southernmost continent, is being carried out through the IAEA’s NUTEC plastics initiative. Established in 2020, NUTEC is an IAEA flagship initiative to fight plastic pollution with nuclear technologies. Through a network of NUTEC Plastic Monitoring Laboratories, nuclear and isotopic techniques are being used to produce data on marine microplastic distribution by sampling and analyzing the prevalence of microplastics in the environment. These precise scientifi­c data represent important information for developing plastic mitigation and disposal measures and policies.

The first evidence of microplastics – plastic particles below 5 mm in diameter- found in Antarctic coastal fast ice, dates to 2009 when researchers from the University of Tasmania sampled sea ice in East Antarctica.  However, there is still almost no information available on where and how much microplastics arrive in the Antarctic and how much is taken up by Antarctic organisms. There is also very little data existing on the types of microplastics reaching this pristine area through ocean currents, atmospheric deposition, and the presence of humans in the Antarctic.

At an event to launch the mission on 5 January at the Argentine Antarctic Base Marambio, Director General Grossi said that the discovery of microplastics in the once-untouched Antarctic environment serves as a testament to the influence of the widespread and detrimental pollutant. “Microplastics are a global problem, but the international community still lacks the scientific data needed to make informed decisions. This is the goal of NUTEC plastics: by understanding the plastic origin, movement, and impact, we can make informed decisions on how to address the problem.”

The presence of microplastics can contribute to accelerating the ice loss in Antarctica by reducing ice reflectivity, altering surface roughness, promoting microbial activity, acting as thermal insulators, and contributing to the mechanical weakening of the ice structure. When combined with climate change, atmospheric conditions, and oceanic influences, the presence of microplastics will deepen the devastating impact of polar ice melting in Antarctica. In addition, microplastics entering the food chain of Antarctic organisms negatively affect the health of Antarctic life and their resilience to climate change.

International Treaty 

In a resolution from March 2022, Member States of the United Nations pledged to initiate negotiations for a new global treaty on banning plastic pollution including in the marine environment, with the objective of formal adoption by 2025.

The IAEA’s expanding NUTEC network of laboratories for monitoring marine (micro-) plastic pollution, including in polar areas, will play a crucial role in providing essential scientific evidence to support for informed decision-making during the treaty negotiations and contribute to its effective implementation, particularly in the marine environment.

Director General Grossi emphasized, “the well-being of Antarctica, a true wilderness on Earth, is vital for the overall health of the planet. Extending our presence throughout the globe, we have brought our specialized expertise to Antarctica where our efforts can bring about much-needed change.”

Harnessing the precision of nuclear science

Over the next month, two IAEA experts will monitor the presence of microplastics in the environment at 22 sites near the Carlini research base in different environments: the Antarctic Ocean water, Antarctic lakes, and Antarctic land. They will take seawater samples from 12 sites, sediment samples from four sites, three samples from lakes, and samples from three different sandy beaches. The team will also monitor the presence of microplastics in organisms by collecting clams and limpets, and the faeces of penguins.

The IAEA’s work to address and monitor the presence of microplastics in Antarctica is carried out in cooperation with Argentina’s Instituto Antartico Argentino (IAA), the office in charge of advising, addressing and performing scientific and technical research and studies in Antarctica, and the Dirección Nacional del Antártico (DNA) which is responsible for guiding, directing and controlling scientific and technical activity in the Antarctic.

During the next month, samples will be collected and prepared by the IAEA team and sent to the IAEA’s Marine Environment Laboratories in Monaco to be analysed. Vibrational spectroscopy will be used to count the number of microparticles of plastic and to characterize the type of polymers to potentially assess the source of microplastic pollution.

Samples will also be sent to the IAA in Buenos Aires where, under the NUTEC initiative, a state-of-the-art microscope and a spectrometer have been installed, as well as a series of trainings provided, to strengthen Argentina’s microplastics research capabilities.

Since its establishment in 1961, the IAEA Environment Laboratories in Monaco have provided IAEA Member States with the tools and knowledge necessary to understand and tackle pressing marine environmental challenges. The IAEA hosts the only marine environment laboratory of the UN system.

NUTEC Plastics (NUclear TEChnology for Controlling Plastic Pollution) builds on the IAEA’s efforts to deal with plastic pollution through recycling using radiation technology and marine monitoring using isotopic tracing techniques. It provides science-based evidence to characterize and assess marine microplastic pollution, while also demonstrating the use of ionizing radiation in plastic recycling, transforming plastic waste into reusable resources.