Richard Reynolds, a retired U.S. Geological Survey researcher recently made an important discovery in Colorado’s Upper River Basin snowpack. It is concerning a subject Reynolds has been looking at for quite some time, co-authoring one article on the topic in 2015 titled, “Regional Variability in Dust-On-Snow Processes and Impacts in Upper Colorado River Basin” followed by another in 2020 titled, “Dust Deposited on Snow Cover in San Juan Mountains, Colorado, 2011-2016: Compositional Variability Bearing on Snow-Melt Effect.”
What makes Reynold’s discovery unique is the fact that it was done on a reexamination of his own research samples, and in doing so, he just may have contributed to a new understanding of the topic! Reynolds and his research team reexamined their samples using a new powerful electron microscope and what they found was evidence of long, straight synthetic fibers, better known as microplastics (mp).
Prior to this finding, Reynolds (along with most other researchers) had dismissed these odd-shaped particles as contaminants or even microbes because of their shapes and sizes. However, after Reynolds learned about other researchers across the globe discovering strange microplastics (mp) in their own alpine snow packs, and following a long-held idea of his own, Reynolds decided to give his samples another look. And in them, he found clear evidence of mp.
Microplastics are defined as pieces of plastic 5mm or less. Like other plastics, they never degrade, at least not in our lifetimes. MP do, however, split, fray, sliver, chip, and basically wear down into tiny particles, yet they still negatively impact our planet the same way any other plastics would.
Microplastics affect the snowpack by accelerating the rate of melting. Mp within the snowpack heat up because of their capacity to absorb sunshine and this causes the accelerated melting patterns. It’s a well-known fact that dust and other particles from the air also contribute to the accelerated melting of the snowpack in this same way.
Scientists developed a Snow Albedo Scale to measure the degree of absorption versus a reflection of particles in the snowpack. Snow albedo starts at zero (being the darkest with all absorption of light and no reflection) and moves up to one (with no absorption and pure reflection of all light like pure snow.) Microplastics in the snowpack lower the snow albedo as they absorb the energy and accelerate the melting.
How Do Microplastics Find Their Way into Snowpacks?
It’s a fair question, and one better answered by someone more knowledgeable about the topic than myself. Peter Deneen, a writer at Watershed Progressive had this to say in an interview with another reporter,
“Most often microplastics end up in snow via airborne deposition. Microplastics.. tend to be lighter than dust particles and become airborne more easily…. These particles, due to their shape, can remain airborne and gain enough altitude to circulate with large-scale weather and be transported[to] faraway places.”
Commenting on mp travel patterns, Reynolds suggests El Niño carries plastic debris from Pacific Ocean garbage collections and dumps it onto U.S. soil. He also suggests local weather patterns lift micro fragments from shredded tires and parts along roadsides into the clouds and then deposit them back onto Colorado’s high alpine landscape.
- Related: Microplastics Discovered on Everest
At What Cost?
Sadly, there is so much mp in global use today, in our clothing, our industrial goods, our packaging, and even our water bottles, you can’t miss it. But at what cost does this come? The answer, in short, is we don’t know.
What researchers do know is that is it not healthy for the plants, the animals, the environment, or the humans that co-habitat. Sharing with another reporter, Richard Reynolds offers his forecast saying, “It seems to be everywhere. And there’s a lot of it. I think we’re going to start seeing more and more microplastics in fish, and in our drinking water.”
What the Future Holds
Despite the gloomy news, it’s not completely hopeless. Our snow packs will not be gone next winter, nor are they incapable of a resurgence. From a more balanced perspective, it seems Reynolds’ study brings much-needed attention to this subject in two significant ways:
- First, it contributes to our understanding of how microplastics influence the melting snowpack.
- Second, the study helps to highlight the effects microplastics have on our environment and our food chain.
Although we may not always be able to change the global production of plastics, I do believe we are, through our individual choices, able to bring increased awareness and help make a difference for all.