The health consequences of microplastics are often discussed, but rarely their potential impact on the Earth’s climate.
Microplastics are undeniably one of the most pernicious ecological disasters; they are difficult to clean, but also to study. So much so that today we still don’t know not precisely enough what are their health effects. On the other hand, what we know very well is that they are absolutely everywhere … including in the air we breathe, where they apparently have a tangible impact on the climate.
In any case, this is the conclusion of a study recently published by New Zealand researchers, spotted by ScienceAlert. They were interested in how microplastics interact with light to estimate their potential impact on the climate, based on the amount suspended in the air. And their findings are particularly intriguing.
First, they found that unpigmented microplastics tended to absorb UVs at wavelengths rarely reached by other particles. This radiation is then diffused in the form of visible light and UVs. This means that less radiation reaches the ground; in theory, this is therefore quite good news, since this mechanism helps to reduce the accumulation of energy by the Earth. And, by extension, atmospheric warming.
But at the same time, the researchers also noticed that they tended to absorb infrared radiation. This property would have the opposite effect, namely participate in warming global planet. Atmospheric microplastics therefore have two opposite effects; they participate in both the warming and the cooling of the Earth. It remains to be seen which of these two components weighs the most in the balance.
An effect that remains to be quantified
To find out, they reviewed all the scientific literature on atmospheric microplastics to include their findings in a climate model … but without being able to draw very clear conclusions. “Microplastics could therefore contribute to the greenhouse effect”, Like certain gases, explains Laura Revell, lead author of the study, in a communicated.
In the future, it will therefore be necessary complete this work with other studies to find out where to place the cursor. Because it has been a few years since we know that these micropollutants have already colonized the planet; they are everywhere today, from our food to the water we drink, and in almost every place in the world. It is even found in almost all living things up to bottom of the Mariana Trench, and even at top of mont Everest… And they didn’t get there on their own.
It is henceforth well established that the wind is one of the dissemination factors microplastic. This implies that the amount of microplastics suspended in the atmosphere could be much higher than previously thought. The problem is that they left to stay there for a while. “We expect microplastics to be present in the atmosphere for many years“, insiste Laura Revell.
If they do have a significant impact on the climate, it is therefore all the more urgent to know which one. Otherwise, we will be unable to learn the right lessons when the time comes. “If the average concentration reaches the values already observed in megalopolises, the effect of atmospheric microplastics will be significant“, conclut Laura Revell. “It will potentially become similar to that of aerosols already integrated into different climate models.“.
The text of the study is available here.
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