Though the report can only speculate as to how so much plastic made its way all the way to the South Pole, its predictions for the future are much more concrete: if we melt away the ice in which this plastic is trapped, those micro plastics could be released into the ocean — and there could be a lot of them.
The numbers arise from random samples, and the assumption that most of the ice in the area contains a similar density of micro plastics. If that’s true, we could see as much as a trillion pieces of plastic enter the ocean as Antarctic ice melts.
In particular, scientists have recently been raising alarms about a quickly melting sheet of Antarctic ice known as the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and more specifically the Ross Ice Shelf. One report argues that the melting is now in an unstoppable chain reaction that could raise global sea levels by as much as 2 or even 3 meters.
Of course, this is all predicted to play out over the course of the next couple of centuries. Also remember that while the release of a trillion pieces of plastic into the oceans is certainly worrying, those pieces of plastic did enter antarctic ice from the ocean.
The sad reality is that, enormous as this slow release of frozen plastic may be, it will likely pale in comparison to the volume of new plastic we’re creating and releasing each and every year.
The particles themselves are mostly made of rayon, polyester, nylon, and a few other common materials. There’s not currently any direct evidence about harmful ecological effects, and certainly no photos of deformed baby animals. Still, scientists seem to have made the rather logical assumption that this much foreign material will almost certainly cause some sort of problem for biology.
The grains can get extremely small, often small enough to slip through the counting filters used to find them, and the researchers warn that such small pieces can often get taken up by animals and held captive in living tissue.
Research is currently ongoing to see what problems, if any, these micro plastics might cause.