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Alarming Research: The shape of microplastics influences their atmospheric travel distance


Microscopic microplastic particles, measuring in the micron range, can be transported by the jet stream across vast oceans and continents, with their specific shape significantly influencing the distance they travel.

Micro plastic in Atmosphere

About the research on microplastics

A collaborative effort involving Cornell University has produced a model for simulating the atmospheric dispersion of microplastic fibres. The research reveals that flat fibres, rather than spherical ones as previously assumed, travel longer distances in the lower atmosphere and are more abundant. This modelling could assist researchers in identifying the origins of widespread microplastic pollution, offering valuable insights for policymaking to combat the issue. The findings have been published in Nature Geoscience.

Reconsidering the flat shape of fibres in previous studies has revealed that their deposition rate had been overestimated. These flat fibres spend 450% more time in the atmosphere than previously thought, resulting in longer travel distances.

Furthermore, the new modelling indicates that the ocean may have a more significant role in directly emitting microplastic aerosols into the atmosphere than previously understood. According to Qi Li, senior author of the paper and assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, this improved understanding of microplastic sources can aid in developing effective management plans, policies, and regulations to reduce plastic waste. The findings could also have implications for other heavy particles transported in the lower atmosphere, such as dust and pollen.

This research received support from the National Science Foundation, and computational resources were provided by the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

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