'Plastic Rain' Is Pouring Down in National Parks
The plastic crisis has polluted the world's oceans and created mountains in landfills. Microplastics have been identified wafting on the sea breeze and raining down on top of the Pyrenees. They travel on the winds and slowly drop down from the skies. Now, a new study has found that some of the most untouched areas of the U.S. are seeing 1,000 tons or more of microplastics rain down every year, according to The New York Times.
The study examined airborne microplastics in national parks in the American West. That means those hikes through the untouched land in Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon or Joshua Tree National Park are not providing the pristine, fresh air we thought they do.
The researchers found that nearly one-fourth come from nearby cities, while the rest drift through the air from far-flung locations. The findings, the first to discern the plastics' geographic origins, add to mounting evidence that microplastic pollution is a worldwide scourge, as Science reported.
"We created something that won't go away," says Janice Brahney, a biogeochemist at Utah State University and lead author on the new paper, according to Science. "It's now circulating around the globe."
The new study was published on Thursday in Science magazine and titled "Plastic rain in protected areas of the United States." The researchers noted that microplastics are found in "nearly every ecosystem on the planet."
To conduct the study, the researchers collected rainwater and air samples for 14 months to calculate how many microplastic particles fall into 11 protected areas in the west each year. They found tiny plastic particles in 98 percent of the 339 samples they collected. Microplastics made up 4 percent of the dust particles that were tested, according to The New York Times.
The 1,000 metric tons, or over 2.2 million pounds, that drops over 11 protected areas every year is equal to of over 120 million plastic water bottles, according to Wired.
"We just did that for the area of protected areas in the West, which is only 6 percent of the total US area," said Brahney, as Wired reported. "The number was just so large, it's shocking."
The plastic is trapped in fundamental atmospheric processes and falling all over the world, making plastic rain the new acid rain, according to Wired.
Microplastics are tiny particles that measure less than 5 millimeters in length. Most microplastics are fragments from larger pieces of plastic. Since plastics aren't biodegradable, when they end up in landfills or garbage heaps, they break down into microparticles and make their way through the earth's atmosphere, soil and water systems, according to The Guardian.
Considering that they have such a long life after their usefulness has expired, many microplastics could be traveling through natural systems for a long time.
"Plastics could be deposited, readmitted to the atmosphere, transported for some time, deposited and maybe picked up again," said Brahney, as The Guardian reported. "And who knows how many times and who knows how far they've travelled?"
Scientists have yet to conclude how all the plastic in the atmosphere affects animal and plant species, but the authors of this new study argue that the global community needs to work together to find a solution.
"The consequences to ecosystems are not yet well understood but are inescapable in the immediate future," the researchers wrote in their study, as CNN reported. "If the potential dangers posed by environmental microplastics are to be mitigated, both the scale of the solution and the level of cooperation that will be required call on the engagement of the global community."
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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