Another dire consequence of plastic pollution.
That already comes with some pretty worrying environmental and health concerns that scientists continue to explore, but new research indicates that the proliferation of these particles could have an even wilder consequence: changing the weather outright.
A followup to recent research that detected microplastics in clouds, a new study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters found that the particles could also be affecting the clouds' formation, with potentially sweeping consequences for our climate.
"Cloud formation has a huge implication for not just our local weather patterns, but for our global temperatures," Fay Couceiro, a professor of environmental pollution at the University of Portsmouth who was not involved in the study, told The Guardian.
As regulators of the solar radiation hitting our planet, clouds both cool and warm the climate (but mostly cool). Above all, they bring rain, snow, and other precipitation — so they play an essential role in the local environment everywhere.
Clouds form when water vapor becomes water droplets. But for the droplets to form in the first place, the vapor needs to cling to tiny particles, like dust.
As solid particles, microplastics could potentially be giving water vapor another surface to form droplets on, though to what extent remains unknown.
The researchers gathered over twenty cloud samples from a mountaintop in eastern China. Their analysis found that many of the microplastics were becoming aged because of the conditions in the cloud, developing rough surfaces and allowing other materials like lead, mercury, and oxygen to stick to them.
The types of microplastics found included polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyethylene (PE), which are commonly used in food packaging and water bottles. Most particles were no more than 0.1 millimeters in length.
Using a computer model they developed, the researchers also reconstructed the journey of the microplastics, finding that they were lifted from the ground via airflow from cities, rather than from the ocean or mountains.
For now, it appears that the microplastics are showing up more in low-altitude clouds, which are denser than high altitude ones such as a cirrus. Beyond that, the researchers conclude that further studies will be needed to understand the extent of the impact this has on the weather — but it's certainly ominous.
More on the climate: Your Evil Car Is Filling the Ocean With Microplastics, Scientists Say
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