Shape Matters: Long-Range Transport of Microplastic Fibers in the Atmosphere

Daria Tatsii (Corresponding author), Silvia Bucci, Taraprasad Bhowmick, Johannes Guettler, Lucie Bakels, Gholamhossein Bagheri (Corresponding author), Andreas Stohl

Publications: Contribution to journalArticlePeer Reviewed


The deposition of airborne microplastic particles, including those exceeding 1000 μm in the longest dimension, has been observed in the most remote places on earth. However, their deposition patterns are difficult to reproduce using current atmospheric transport models. These models usually treat particles as perfect spheres, whereas the real shapes of microplastic particles are often far from spherical. Such particles experience lower settling velocities compared to volume equivalent spheres, leading to longer atmospheric transport. Here, we present novel laboratory experiments on the gravitational settling of microplastic fibers in air and find that their settling velocities are reduced by up to 76% compared to those of the spheres of the same volume. An atmospheric transport model constrained with the experimental data shows that shape-corrected settling velocities significantly increase the horizontal and vertical transport of particles. Our model results show that microplastic fibers of about 1 mm length emitted in populated areas are more likely to reach extremely remote regions of the globe, including the high Arctic, which is not the case for spheres of equivalent volume. We also calculate that fibers with lengths of up to 100 μm settle slowly enough to be lifted high into the stratosphere, where degradation by ultraviolet radiation may release chlorine and bromine, thus potentially damaging the stratospheric ozone layer. These findings suggest that the growing environmental burden and still increasing emissions of plastic pose multiple threats to life on earth.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)671-682
Number of pages12
JournalEnvironmental Science & Technology
Issue number1
Early online date27 Dec 2023
Publication statusPublished - 9 Jan 2024

Austrian Fields of Science 2012

  • 105206 Meteorology


  • atmospheric transport
  • fibers
  • gravitational settling
  • microplastics
  • shape


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