University explores impact of climate change and microplastic pollution in the Antarctic

Scientists from the University of Plymouth are involved in an international scientific expedition investigating how climate change is impacting the Antarctic continent, the role of the Southern Ocean in climate mitigation and the long-range atmospheric transport of contamination.

The Antarctic Quest 21 mission, led by explorer Paul Hart, will install and upgrade instrumentation that provides geophysical data essential to the refinement of sea-level predictions. They will also measure snowfall and collect snow samples from completely isolated and unvisited areas of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Some of those samples will then be analysed at the University to investigate the long-range atmospheric transport of microplastics and the concentration of metals.

The expedition has been inspired by one of Britain’s most admired explorers, Sir Ernest Shackleton, who set out on his own science expedition 100 years ago this year, but sadly died before he could begin his scientific work.

In a fitting tribute to Shackleton, the expedition team will mark the date of his passing with a commemoration service on the Antarctic ice, reflecting his importance in the history and the beginnings of scientific exploration of the Antarctic continent.

Dr Charlotte Braungardt

Dr Charlotte Braungardt

Dr Charlotte Braungardt, Associate Professor in Environmental Science at the University, is serving as the expedition’s scientific adviser. She said:

“This is without question an ambitious undertaking that will encounter challenges similar to those faced by the expeditions of Shackleton’s time. The data obtained during the expedition and transmitted for years to come from installed equipment will help the scientific community to refine models and reduce the uncertainty in predictions of the impact of climate change on our coastlines and communities. It will also enhance our understanding of our impact on the planet in one of the few areas still largely untouched by the human population. This will support the development of solutions that prevent, mitigate and adapt.”

Read more about the project's scientific missions on Dr Braungardt's blog

Using the Antarctic to examine the global carbon cycle

The expedition team will collect snow-pack samples, and these will be analysed at the University of Plymouth by Dr Simon Ussher and Dr Angela Milne. The results of this work will provide insights into the magnitude of atmospheric deposition of essential elements, their concentration in melt water and any recent changes that may have occurred. The data will be included in models of processes that influence biomass production, with a better understanding of this system helping to improve Earth system models of contemporary climate change and predictions of its future evolution.

Read more about the team’s research

Long-range atmospheric transport of microplastics

Snow-pack samples captured on the expedition will be assessed by Dr Imogen Napper and colleagues at the University. Recent research by the team has revealed the abundance, characteristics and seasonal variations of microplastics in the Ganges river, and the impact of tourism on what was once a remote and pristine environment: Mount Everest.

These new samples, from areas on the Antarctic Peninsula where no person has been before, will provide an insight into potential long-range atmospheric transport of microplastics and will identify whether their concentrations increased over recent years.

The Antarctic Quest 21 expedition and Sir Ernest Shackleton

Sir Ernest Shackleton is most widely known for his exploits during his ‘Endurance’ expedition, when he led his team to safety after their ship was crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea. His iconic leadership is widely regarded as the reason he was able to save his team, despite the overwhelming hardships and challenges that they faced. However, Shackleton’s scientific legacy is less well known.

On 24 September 1921, Sir Ernest Shackleton set sail from Plymouth aboard his ship the MV Quest, bound for Antarctica to carry out extensive scientific observations and experiments in what became known as the ‘Quest’ expedition.

Although his death in South Georgia prevented him from carrying out his mission, the Antarctic Quest 21 expedition will ensure recognition of his importance in the age of heroic polar exploration by heading, much as Shackleton did, into untrodden areas of the Antarctic.




The eight-person team of explorers, led by Paul Hart and including former University explorer-in-residence Antony Jinman, have considerable polar experience that will enable them to deal with the extremely hazardous and challenging conditions on the Antarctic Peninsula.

They will have to contend with severe storms, the dangers of avalanche and crevasse, while hauling loads in excess of 100 kg across mountainous terrain to achieve their scientific objectives.

The expedition team will depart the UK in December 2021 and return in February 2022. The Commemoration event for Shackleton will take place on 5 January 2022, conditions and circumstances permitting.


Find out more about Antarctic Quest 21

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