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The Mystery of the Blue Microplastic Fiber

Gregg Treinish and his team at Adventure Scientists bring us stories from around the world about adventuring with purpose. In October 2016, mountaineer and Arctic explorer Lonnie Dupre led a climbing expedition on Langju Himal (20,885ft), deep in the heart of the Himalayas. The Nepalese government recently opened up the sacred region to climbing, so the team explored an area completely untouched by people. Vertical Nepal used this opportunity to gather freshwater samples for Adventure ScientistsGlobal Microplastics Initiative. Astonishingly, a sample taken at the foot of the Langju Glacier (which no person had ever set foot on), contained one blue microplastic fiber.

By Pascale Marceau of Vertical Nepal

team traveling up glacier
Vertical Nepal team working their way up the glacier on Langju. Photo by Elias de Andres Martos.

Exploration, adventure, pioneering, remoteness – all words that describe this fall’s Vertical Nepal expedition. The team had an objective to complete the first ever ascent of Langju Himal (20,885ft), a mountain situated in the Tsum Valley, deep in the heart of the Himalayas. Although snow conditions, extremely technical terrain, and respiratory colds forced us to turn around just a day from the summit, Vertical Nepal remains a great success. The team was excited to see the results of the microplastic water sampling they did in collaboration with Adventure Scientists.

Pascale Marceau collecting a water sample at the never before visited foot of the Langju glacier. Photo by Lonnie Dupre.
Pascale Marceau collecting a water sample at the never before visited foot of the Langju glacier. Photo by Lonnie Dupre.

One sample we were particularly thrilled to get was the water sample for the Global Microplastics Initiative. The sampled stream was located at the foot of Langju’s glacier and contained one blue microplastic fiber. Nobody has been on that mountain, so we were surprised to find any trace plastic here – this area was pristine and nobody lives within a couple kilometers. One hypothesis is that atmospheric deposition could be why we’re seeing plastic in some of the more remote locations (though this has yet to be proved).

To date, 53% of Adventure Scientist freshwater samples have contained at least one piece of plastic.

We took a second water sample on Larke Pass that contained five pieces of microplastics. Unfortunately, the Manaslu circuit is often littered by various plastic wrappers and other garbage. We witnessed locals discard trash on several occasions. The river was relatively close to the trail, so it is inevitable that plastics find their way into the water courses.

Lonnie Dupre collecting a scat sample
Lonnie Dupre collecting a scat sample from the high altitude Himalayan blue sheep in the Tsum Valley, Nepal. Photo by Pascale Marceau.

Another unique sample is from the Himalayan blue sheep that reside between 10,000 to 20,000 feet. The team saw a herd grazing on a grassy slope and were fortunate to collect their fresh scat for the Harvard School of Medicine Antibiotic Resistance: Global Microbe Study. Harvard is still processing this sample.
Lonnie Dupre, polar explorer and leader of the Vertical Nepal expedition, has many other exciting projects on the horizon – all in remote parts of our planet. We look forward to continuing this wonderful partnership with Adventure Scientists, providing seemingly unattainable data for scientists by collecting samples in harsh, cold environments.

Donkeys transporting supplies in Himalayas
Transporting supplies over Larke pass, high in the Himalayas. Photo by Lonnie Dupre.

Listen to Vertical Nepal talk about the sample collection, sent via satellite communication during the expedition.

Pascale Marceau on the summit of Lobuche. Photo by Migma Tamang
Pascale Marceau on the summit of Lobuche. Photo by Migma Tamang

Pascale Marceau, a Vertical Nepal team member, made her career as a chemical engineer in the renewable energy industry. She dedicates her free time to mountaineering, merging science with exploration.

Find out more about our Global Microplastics Initiative and other Adventure Scientists projects by visiting our website and by following us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.