Microplastics in clouds: the looming threat to health and climate

High above our heads, an environmental problem is brewing that has long gone undetected and could have serious consequences for our bodies and our planet

Microplastics in clouds

Author: House of Eden

In recent years, numerous studies have shown that Micro plastic, the smallest plastic particles with a size of less than five millimeters, can be found literally everywhere on Earth - from the depths of the oceans to the highest peaks and the most remote corners of the Arctic. These small particles are created by the decomposition of larger plastic pieces or come from plastic granules in cosmetic products and cleaning products. They find their way into nature, for example, via wastewater or the improper disposal of plastic waste. According to a study published in Science Magazine annually from land into the ocean.

Once in the environment, microplastic particles can easily be transported by wind and water. The small particles reach much higher in the atmosphere than previously thought. In a recent study, Japanese scientists have also detected microplastic particles in clouds for the first time. This groundbreaking discovery could have far-reaching consequences - for our health and our climate.

First detection of microplastics in clouds

While most previous research on microplastics has focused on their occurrence in marine and terrestrial ecosystems, a research team led by Professor Hiroshi Okochi of Waseda University in Tokyo has now for the first time investigated microplastics in a study published in the journal Environmental Chemical Letters investigates how airborne microplastics (AMPs) circulate in the atmosphere and affect cloud formation.

To investigate the role played by the tiny plastic particles in the troposphere and the atmospheric boundary layer, the scientific team collected moisture from clouds at altitudes between 1300 and 3776 meters from the summit of Mount Fuji and Mount Oyama. And the results were alarming: Between 7 and 14 microplastic particles with Feret diameters (a unit of measurement for particle sizes) of 7 to 95 micrometers were found per liter of cloud water. The smallest particles were in the free layer of the troposphere, the larger particles in the areas below.

Properties of microplastics in the clouds

The researchers not only determined the number and size of the microplastic particles in the cloud water, but also examined their physical and chemical properties. In total, the scientists were able to identify nine different types of polymers such as polyamide, polycarbonate, polypropylene, polyurethane and even a type of rubber in the cloud samples.

What was particularly interesting was the discovery that the cloud water samples contained numerous hydrophilic, i.e. water-loving, polymers. After all, plastics are normally hydrophobic and can only become hydrophilic after prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light. The researchers suspect that these hydrophilic microplastic particles serve as condensation nuclei for water vapor in the atmosphere and can thus influence cloud formation and, in the long term, the climate.

What are the effects of microplastics in clouds?

The results of the Japanese study not only shed new light on the cycle of microplastics in the atmosphere, but also point to potential risks to our health and the climate.

Health consequences:

  • Microplastic particles, which serve as condensation nuclei for clouds, can return to the earth's surface through precipitation and be inhaled or absorbed through food and water.
  • According to the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment Studies have shown that microplastics can accumulate in various places in the body. They have even been detected in the blood. The consequences of this accumulation have not yet been fully researched, but it is suspected that they can lead to inflammation, cell damage and even cancer.
  • In addition, the microplastic particles in the clouds have a higher ability to bind environmental toxins such as lead and mercury, as the Japanese researchers discovered. The reason for this is the porous surface of the particles, which is caused by the increased UV radiation. Together with the plastic particles, other pollutants could thus enter our bodies and affect our health. However, further research is needed to investigate these connections in more detail.

Consequences for the climate:

  • Clouds play an important role in the Earth's heat balance. On the one hand, they reflect parts of the UV radiation, which has a cooling effect. On the other hand, they also absorb the infrared radiation emitted by the Earth's surface and partially radiate it back towards the Earth's surface, thereby increasing the greenhouse effect. Every change in the cloud system therefore also triggers a Climate change after yourself.
  • In fact, the results of the Japanese study suggest that microplastics at high altitudes could influence cloud formation and thus the climate. The surface of the microplastic particles, which has become hydrophilic due to UV radiation, plays a special role. The researchers suspect that this could accelerate cloud formation.
  • Also one in Nature magazine published study A Swiss research team's study underlines these assumptions. According to the scientists, sufficient amounts of microplastics could also change the ability of clouds to reflect the sun, the amount of precipitation emitted and the lifespan of clouds, thus affecting the Earth's radiation balance and climate. However, the exact consequences are not yet fully understood and require further research.

What can we do about microplastics in the clouds?

There is only one way to effectively reduce the accumulation of microplastics in the clouds in the long term: reducing plastic production and using environmentally friendly alternativesWe can make our contribution at an individual level by reducing the consumption of single-use plastic products, reusable packaging banning cosmetic products containing microplastics from our bathrooms and properly disposing of and recycling plastic waste. These measures can at least limit the release of microplastics into the environment.

Conclusion: The weather situation has worsened

Not a good outlook: The discovery of microplastics in clouds shows how much pollution has already changed our planet. The tiny plastic particles not only endanger the Life in the oceans and terrestrial ecosystems, but also have potential impacts on overall weather patterns and climate.

In addition, microplastics in the clouds pose a threat to our health, as the tiny plastic particles enter our bodies via the food chain or when we breathe and can make us sick in the long term. Combating microplastics in the clouds is therefore an investment in our health and the future of our planet. It is urgent to reduce plastic waste and find more sustainable alternatives so that the plastic we carelessly throw away does not end up making us or our planet sick.


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