Atmospheric Microplastics May Contribute to Warming Temps

Plastic Pellets Photo: Gentlemanrook, Wiki CC

By Alex Bowman, ODP Contributing Writer

It’s a well known fact that fossil fuels are plaguing our atmosphere, but new research finds petroleum products are entering our air in a whole new form: microplastics. A study published in Nature on Wednesday reveals findings of how airborne microplastics behave in the earth’s atmosphere and contribute to global temperature rise. The results highlight how widespread microplastic pollution is and the extent of its potential impact on climate change. 


Why This Matters: Plastic pollution is an environmental plague often discussed alongside climate change, but this new research affirms just how intertwined the two are. The world currently produces about 300 million tons of plastic waste every year with only 20 petrochemical companies producing more than half of the world’s single-use plastic. One of the many problems with plastic waste is that it doesn’t stay put. Instead, it decomposes into tiny microfibers that can travel over land and sea. While now understanding how microplastics impact our world, the production of plastics hasn’t stopped.


Cold, Shiny, Hard Plastic

One of the lead researchers behind the study, Dr. Laura Revell, explained that microplastics are “light enough to be transported by the wind over large distances.” She describes a “plastic cycle,” in which microplastics move between different parts of the earth’s environment. They can be kicked up in sea spray or wind currents, and aerial studies have found them at atmospheric altitudes of 3.5 kilometers. 


Many aerosols, including soot and ash, can also travel extremely long distances, either scattering sunlight and cooling the atmosphere, or absorbing sunlight and warming it. But what sets microplastics apart is that they do both, and though their contribution to warming is minimal now, it will likely increase as plastic production and waste increases, making its impact comparable to that of other aerosols.


Dr. Deonie Allen, a microplastics researcher at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, who was not involved in this study, told Scientific American that microplastics are yet another way humans affect their climate and that it must be accounted for, stating, “this is the paper that opens the door.”

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