Microplastics found in clouds over mountains in China could impact Earth’s weather, study reveals
- Microplastics were found in the clouds near the summit of Mount Tai
- These tiny particles can promote cloud formation in unpredictable ways
- READ MORE: Babies have 10 TIMES more microplastics in their feces
Microplastics are present almost everywhere: on remote beaches, in seafood, on top of pristine mountains, in the bodies of newborn babies and now in the clouds over China.
A team from the country identified tiny particles in clouds above the World Heritage Site of Mount Tai, and speculated that the microplastics could affect Earth’s weather.
The discovery, announced Wednesday, could lead to more cloud formation, increasing precipitation or cooler conditions, but the scientists said more research needs to be done.
They suspect too that the particles in the clouds promote cloud formation and cause the clouds to transport metals from industrial pollution.
The microplastics found on top of Mount Tai came in many forms: fibers (a), fragments (b), films (c) and spheres (d)
Microplastics are defined as plastic particles smaller than five millimeters, but in this study most particles (about 60 percent) were smaller than 100 micrometers.
There are 1000 micrometers in one millimeter, and while that may sound small, enough of these small pieces can have an outsized effect.
The team behind the study collected cloud water samples from the top of the mountain, which skirts the clouds and rises about a mile above sea level.
They analyzed the samples under microscopes and with a spectrometer to determine the chemical composition of the clouds’ contents.
Microplastics were found in 24 out of 28 samples, and the amount increased closer to sea level, where clouds were also found to be denser
Microplastics likely drifted from more populated inland areas before winds brought them to the more rural Mount Tai
Sunlight and other weathering can break microplastics into even smaller fragments, the scientists note, so they may have missed some of these so-called “nanoplastics” in the study.
“As such, our results likely represent the lower limit of plastic in clouds,” the team wrote in the study Published Wednesday.
Computer models show that these microplastics have drifted from other parts of the country, and researchers suspect the particles could change the way clouds form and thus influence the weather.
Water and ice can condense around particles in the air, promoting cloud formation, like volcanic ash thrown up after an eruption. So researchers think that microplastics in the air may behave similarly.
The clouds can also change the plastic.
Microplastics are defined as plastic particles smaller than five millimeters, but in this study most particles (about 60 percent) were smaller than 100 micrometers
In the atmosphere, sunlight can weather and wear plastics, making their surfaces rough and jagged.
As part of the new research, scientists exposed microplastics to plain water and air or to water and UV light. The cloud-like conditions made the particles much rougher, and the researchers found that this change could make it easier for heavy metals like lead and mercury to hitch a ride on the microplastics.
This study is not the first to find microplastics in clouds. In October, scientists in Japan announced similar findings from cloud samples collected atop Mount Oyama and Mount Fuji.
Researchers who identified microplastics in fresh Antarctic snow suspect that the particles accelerate snowmelt, so the new study’s findings add another piece to the microplastics puzzle.
More research is needed to clarify the exact role of these ever-present particles in our changing climate.