IAEA launches first scientific research expedition in Antarctica

By Houmi Ahamed-Mikidache

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an international organization under the auspices of the United Nations, today launched in cooperation with Argentina its first scientific research expedition to Antarctica, has just learned Era Environnement through a press release. This expedition aims to study the presence of microplastics in Antarctica as part of efforts to solve this growing environmental problem, even in the most remote regions of the planet, the international organization says.

Towards the impact assessment of microplastics

The President of Argentina, Javier Milei, and the Director General of the IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi, joined the IAEA scientific team at the Argentine Antarctic bases of Marambio and Esperanza to mark the beginning of their mission. Defence Minister Luis Petri, Interior and Foreign Ministers Guillermo Francos and Diana Mondino were also in attendance.

According to the IAEA, a two-person research team will leave for a month to assess the impact of microplastics by studying its presence and distribution in seawater, lakes, sediments, sand, water and animal discharges from the Antarctic ecosystem near the Argentine Carlini scientific research station.

The NUTEC techniques

Specific techniques from the NUTEC plastic monitoring laboratory network will be used to produce data on the distribution of marine microplastics by sampling and analysis of the prevalence of microplastics in the environment. According to the IAEA, this specific science is important information for the development of plastic mitigation and disposal measures and policies.

According to information taken by Era Environnement, the NUTEC technique (Nuclear technologies to control plastic pollution) builds on the IAEA’s efforts to combat plastic pollution through recycling using radiation technology and marine monitoring using isotope tracing techniques. It provides scientific evidence to characterize and assess marine pollution by microplastics, while demonstrating the use of ionizing radiation in plastic recycling, turning plastic waste into reusable resources.

The International Treaty on Plastic Pollution

In its statement, the IAEA recalls that the first evidence of microplastics – plastic particles less than 5 mm in diameter- found in Antarctic fast ice dates back to 2009, when researchers from the University of Tasmania sampled sea ice in East Antarctica.   The international organization says that there is still almost no information available on the location and quantity of microplastics in the Antarctic. There is also very little data on the types of microplastics reaching this pristine area through ocean currents, atmospheric deposition and the presence of humans in Antarctica.

In the March 2022 resolution on the International Plastic Pollution Treaty, the United Nations Member States, the IAEA recalls, committed to begin negotiations for a new global treaty on the prohibition of plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, with the goal of formal adoption by 2025. In fact, the IAEA’s NUTEC laboratory network for monitoring marine plastic (micro-) pollution, including in polar areas, will play a crucial role in providing essential scientific evidence to support an informed decision, the IAEA said.

“By expanding our presence around the world, we have brought our specialist expertise to Antarctica, where our efforts can make necessary changes,” said Director General Grossi.

Since its inception in 1961, the IAEA Environment Laboratories in Monaco have provided IAEA Member States with the tools and knowledge to understand and address the pressing challenges of the marine environment. The IAEA hosts the only marine environment laboratory in the United Nations system.

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