The once-pristine mountain environment of Mount Everest is now littered with everything from oxygen cannisters to the bodies of climbers. And microplastics.
- Researchers found microplastics at all 19 sites sampled on Mount Everest
- This is the highest altitude microplastics have been discovered at
- The source is believed to be climbers, however atmospheric transfer can’t be ruled out
Scientists studying plastic pollution on Mount Everest have discovered microplastics as high as 8,440 metres up the mountain, just 400 metres below the peak.
This is the first time researchers have looked at microplastics on the mountain, and they were surprised to find them at such high altitudes.
The results of their study are published today in One Earth.
“These are the highest microplastics [ever] discovered so far,” lead author Imogen Napper from the University of Plymouth said in a statement.
Snow and water samples were taken at 19 intervals on Mount Everest, beginning at 4,200 metres above sea level all the way up to the balcony — a rest point for climbers at 8,440m before they push for the summit.
The microplastics, which included polyester, acrylic, nylon and polypropylene, were present in all snow samples, at an average of 30 particles per litre sampled, and in just under half of the water samples.
Because of the types of materials found, the researchers suspect the sources are the clothing and equipment of the climbers.
However, because microplastics are able to be carried on the wind and in the atmosphere, this also can’t be ruled out as a source.
The difficult terrain and high cost makes research of this kind extremely difficult, environmental contamination expert Thava Palanisami of the University of Newcastle commented.
This particular study data came from an expedition led by National Geographic along with commercial sponsors.
“It is really a challenging study to do… this is an amazing, amazing study,” Dr Palanisami said.
“This is really surprising and shocking because Mount Everest is supposed to be a pristine area.”
‘Tourism pollution’ a universal problem
The concentration of microplastics on Mount Everest was positively correlated with the frequency of people visiting those areas.
“They found more microplastics at the base camp area, which is where there are most people,” Dr Palanisami said.
This is a consistent trend with tourism worldwide.
“We call it tourism pollution. It’s an easily fixed problem. If you can have stringent regulations, like you can’t carry [single use plastics], you’re actually stopping a huge problem.”
The issue with microplastics is that they are typically more difficult to remove from the environment than larger scale waste.
Although individually small in size, they undergo what is called bioaccumulation in the environment — especially in aquatic animals that accidentally eat them.
Bioaccumulation is where, usually a contaminant, builds up over time in an organism.
Where microplastics are present in snowmelt, they’re likely to enter freshwater river systems, Dr Palanisami said.
“Mount Everest is the source of [a lot of] freshwater downstream. It would be interesting to know how far down the river this travels,” he said.
In marine life as well as in birds, microplastics have been shown to block digestive tracts, which can in turn stunt development or in worst cases lead to starvation.
“We know much about [the effects of microplastics on] marine life, but we don’t know much about human health,” Dr Palanisami said.
The discovery of microplastics on Everest highlights the need to move away from plastic products, according to researcher Imogen Napper.
“We need to start focusing on deeper technological solutions that focus on microplastics, like changing fabric design and incorporating natural fibres instead of plastic when possible,” she said.
“With microplastics so ubiquitous in our environment, it’s time to focus on informing appropriate environmental solutions. We need to protect and care for our planet.”