A porter carries goods at camp four at Everest, in this picture taken on May 20, 2016. Photo: Phurba Tenjing Sherpa/Handout via Reuters.
New Delhi: Scientists have discovered microplastic pollution in snow near the peak of Mount Everest, according to studies published in the journal One Earth.
Scientists found microplastics – tiny plastic fibres – within a few hundred metres of the world’s highest mountain, at a spot called the balcony, located at 27,500 feet, just a few hours climb from Everest’s summit. Their analysis showed that snow samples collected from 11 locations between base camp and the balcony on the Himalayan peak contained sufficient quantity of microplastic fibres to constitute pollution.
One reason the scientists cited for the high concentration of microplastics was the presence of trekkers and mountaineers who camped in the area and usually carried clothing, tents and other mountaineering gear, which likely shed these fibres. Synthetic fabrics are known to shed around 400 microplastic fibres for every gram of synthetic clothing every 20 minutes or so.
Even though Nepal banned single-use plastics in the Everest region last year, microplastics – which are mostly made up of materials like polyester, acrylic, nylon and polypropylene – on the world’s highest mountain are likely to continue to accumulate.
It’s also possible winds carry additional microplastics to the mountain, Paul Mayewski, leader of the expedition, said in a statement. Imogen Napper, who studies marine litter at the University of Plymouth, added: “It really surprised me to find microplastics in every single snow sample I analysed. Mount Everest is somewhere I have always considered remote and pristine. To know we are polluting near the top of the tallest mountain is a real eye-opener.”
While concerns around plastic pollution and littering on the Everest have been raised before, the new study is among the first to assess the extent of microplastic pollution and as a result is too small to be collected.
Scientists have previously found traces of microplastics in some of the most remote regions of the planet – including in ice cores drilled in the Arctic and in the deepest point in the ocean, the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, as well as in the stomachs of deep sea creatures.
“It was very disappointing to see obvious human contamination of the deepest point in the ocean,” Victor Vescovo, an investor and explorer who undertook the deepest dive ever made by a human inside a submarine to the trench, said in an interview. Scientists have also found large amounts of microplastic in the guts of deep-dwelling ocean mammals like whales.
While we frequently come into contact with microplastics every day, Napper said in the statement that the high-elevation find was an eye opener: “We have now found it from the bottom of the deep sea, all the way to nearly the summit of the highest mountain on Earth.” He added that given how ubiquitous microplastics had become in the environment, it was important to focus on appropriate environmental solutions.
According to her, reducing, reusing and recycling plastic waste is important – as was nudging consumers to shift to using natural fibres like cotton.
Earlier this year, a study conducted by the World Wide Fund for Nature said the average person consumed five grams of plastic – the equivalent of a credit card – every week.
Other studies have reported that glaciers throughout the Himalaya have been consistently melting since 1962 and are now dwindling at rates over 50% faster than they were six decades ago – most likely as a result of anthropogenic global warming.
Scientists have also found ice melting at altitudes above 20,000 feet. “That took me back a bit, I have to say,” glaciologist Owen King told National Geographic – since at that elevation, ice should be frozen solid all year round, and snow should be accumulating to feed into the glacial system.
Another striking conclusion from the current study is that the Khumbu Glacier, the highest glacier in the world, has lost nearly a fourth of its volume since 1962.