Microplastics in Clouds May Be Contributing to Climate Change

Scientists have made a startling discovery, detecting minuscule plastic particles in clouds, potentially contributing to climate change.

Researchers gathered water samples from clouds enveloping Japan’s Mount Fuji and Mount Oyama, spanning altitudes ranging from 1,300 to 3,776 meters. They then employed advanced imaging methods to ascertain the presence of microplastics.

In the airborne microplastics, they identified nine distinct types of polymers and one type of rubber. Concentrations of these microplastics ranged from 6.7 to 13.9 pieces per liter, with sizes varying from 7.1 to 94.6 micrometers. Intriguingly, a surplus of hydrophilic (water-attracting) polymers was discovered, suggesting they could serve as “cloud condensation nuclei.” This implies they might play a pivotal role in rapid cloud formation, potentially influencing the broader climate.

Summarizing their findings, the scientists conveyed in their study, published in the journal Environmental Chemical Letters, “Overall, our findings suggest that high-altitude microplastics could influence cloud formation and, in turn, might modify the climate. To the best of our knowledge, this study is the first to detect airborne microplastics in cloud water in both the free troposphere and atmospheric boundary layer.”

Hiroshi Okochi, the lead author of the research and affiliated with Waseda University, highlighted the broader implications, stating, “Microplastics in the free troposphere are transported and contribute to global pollution. If the issue of ‘plastic air pollution’ is not addressed proactively, climate change and ecological risks may become a reality, causing irreversible and serious environmental damage in the future.”

Mr. Okochi also noted that airborne microplastics degrade more rapidly in the upper atmosphere due to intense ultraviolet radiation. This degradation process releases greenhouse gases, further contributing to global warming.

The researchers emphasized that, to the best of their knowledge, this marks the first report on the presence of airborne microplastics in cloud water.

In a statement, Waseda University underscored the broader implications, noting that research indicates “microplastics are ingested or inhaled by humans and animals alike and have been detected in multiple organs such as the lung, heart, blood, placenta, and feces.”

The statement further stated, “10 million tonnes of these plastic bits end up in the ocean, released with the ocean spray, and find their way into the atmosphere. This implies that microplastics may have become an essential component of clouds, contaminating nearly everything we eat and drink via ‘plastic rainfall’.”

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