In the fight against pollution, we frequently focus on the obvious offenders: industrial pollutants, landfills, and the plastic debris that is littered throughout our landscapes. A rising number of people are worried that the most pernicious type of pollution may be present just above our heads, undetectable to the unaided sight but potentially more harmful than we can conceive. We are referring to airborne microplastic pollution, a problem that is closely related to our oceans. This blog will explore the intriguing yet alarming realm of airborne microplastic contamination, its marine origins

Even in the most isolated regions of the earth, microplastic particles are found in the marine atmosphere. A study conducted by a group of German and Norwegian researchers lead by Dr. Barbara Scholz-Böttcher of the University of Oldenburg has revealed that these minute particles originate from terrestrial sources but are also re-emitted into the atmosphere from the sea. The researchers examined air samples collected from several locations along the Norwegian coast and as far north as the Arctic. The outcomes were just released in the scholarly journal Nature Communications.

First author of the publication and PhD student at the University of Oldenburg's Institute for Chemistry and Biology of the Marine Environment (ICBM) Isabel Goßmann remarked, "With our study, we present data on the mass load of various forms of plastic in the marine atmosphere for the first time. The samples were gathered by the study team in 2021 while on a trip with the study Vessel Heincke. The most southern island of the Svalbard archipelago, Bear Island, which is located halfway between the mainland and the archipelago's largest island, Spitsbergen, was the destination with the greatest latitude. To gather air samples, the researchers employed two distinct instruments. The apparatuses, which actively pushed air in, were twelve meters high and situated on the research vessel's bow.

The researchers used pyrolysis, gas chromatography, and mass spectrometry to analyze the air samples. Through heat deterioration and careful research, they were able to identify and count the many kinds of plastics present in the atmosphere using this technique. The sources and distribution paths of the tiny particles, which are each a few thousandths of a millimeter in size, were then recreated using model calculations.


The study showed that polyester particles were everywhere. Particles of polyethylene terephthalate, likely textile fibers that penetrated the environment, were found in all samples.

There were also other kinds of plastic, such as polypropylene, polycarbonate, and polystyrene. Another significant source of microplastics has been identified as tire wear particles, which are the microscopic fragments of debris that tires abrade while moving and particularly when stopping. Microplastics concentrations in the air reached up to 37.5 nanograms (one nanogram is one billionth of a gram), according to the researchers' measurements. These toxins are all around us. Even in the most isolated arctic locations, we discover them, Goßmann emphasized.

Rivers are one method that microplastics enter the ocean, but they can also enter the atmosphere through the rain, for example. Ship traffic is another potential source. In a previous study, a group led by Scholz-Böttcher showed that the largest source of microplastics in the open North Sea is paint and coatings used on ships. Polyurethanes and epoxy resins, which are frequently found in paints and coatings for ships, were also discovered in the air samples utilized in the current investigation.

The research team included scientists from the ICBM as well as the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven, Technische Universität Berlin, the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU), and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH).  


Isabel Goßmann et al: “Occurrence and backtracking of microplastic mass loads including tire wear particles in northern Atlantic air”, Nature Communications 14, 3707 (2023).