Peter Kuma Software and Science

Direct radiative effects of airborne microplastics

Laura E. Revell1, Peter Kuma1, 3, Eric C. Le Ru2, Walter R. C. Somerville2, Sally Gaw1

1School of Physical and Chemical Sciences, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand
2The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand
3Department of Meteorology, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

Abstract

Microplastics are now recognized as widespread contaminants in the atmosphere, where, due to their small size and low density, they can be transported with winds around the Earth1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25. Atmospheric aerosols, such as mineral dust and other types of airborne particulate matter, influence Earth’s climate by absorbing and scattering radiation (direct radiative effects) and their impacts are commonly quantified with the effective radiative forcing (ERF) metric26. However, the radiative effects of airborne microplastics and associated implications for global climate are unknown. Here we present calculations of the optical properties and direct radiative effects of airborne microplastics (excluding aerosol–cloud interactions). The ERF of airborne microplastics is computed to be 0.044 ± 0.399 milliwatts per square metre in the present-day atmosphere assuming a uniform surface concentration of 1 microplastic particle per cubic metre and a vertical distribution up to 10 kilometres altitude. However, there are large uncertainties in the geographical and vertical distribution of microplastics. Assuming that they are confined to the boundary layer, shortwave effects dominate and the microplastic ERF is approximately −0.746 ± 0.553 milliwatts per square metre. Compared with the total ERF due to aerosol–radiation interactions27 (−0.71 to −0.14 watts per square metre), the microplastic ERF is small. However, plastic production has increased rapidly over the past 70 years28; without serious attempts to overhaul plastic production and waste-management practices, the abundance and ERF of airborne microplastics will continue to increase.
Journal:
Nature
Volume:
598
Issue:
7881
Pages:
462–467
DOI:
10.1038/s41586-021-03864-x
Submitted:
24 January 2021
Accepted:
29 July 2021
Published:
20 October 2021
Supplementary information:
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BibTeX: @article{revell2021,
  journal={Nature},
  year={2021},
  volume={598},
  issue={7881},
  pages={462-467},
  doi={10.1038/s41586-021-03864-x},
  url={https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03864-x},
  author={Revell, Laura E. and Kuma, Peter and Le Ru, Eric C. and Somerville, Walter R. C. and Gaw, Sally},
  title={Direct radiative effects of airborne microplastics}
}