Skip to main content

Spencer Ingley shares about his journey and micro -plastics research in Antarctica, the Great White Continent

Spencer Ingley stands on ice and snow in Antarctica.

On the vast, barren vistas of Antarctica, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Sciences Spencer Ingley was one of five volunteers selected by AirBnB and The Ocean Conservancy to travel to the Great White Continent of Antarctica, in order to understand the impact human activity could have on the environment.

Ingley shared, “I think of it as this land of hyperboles: the coldest, the windiest, the driest, the highest, and the most remote.”

Trying to understand the impact human activity can have on the Antarctic environment, Ingley and the research team looked into any evidence of micro-plastic pollution in the interior of the continent. He defined micro-plastics as “a piece of plastic smaller than five millimeters.”

Mountains, snow and ice in Antarctica.

Micro-plastics can be found in the raw plastic beads used in factories to create plastic material, or even in the larger plastics used, which eventually break down into a micro-plastic. Ingley commented, “One thing people often do not think about is our micro-fibers that come from plastic-based clothing. When you wash a polyester or nylon shirt, it releases thousands of microfibers into the environment.”

Tanner Sanchez-Smith, a senior from Oregon majoring in biology, discussed what stood out to him from Ingley’s experience. He specifically focused on the idea of the interconnectedness of the world. “They were testing micro-plastics to see how far into the continent they have gone. The results aren’t back yet, but preliminary results show that there are likely plastics in the most remote part of Antarctica.”

Ingley shared, “We collected snow samples from 80 or so localities, from areas by camps to some of the most remote areas.” He explained how the team would gather the snow, melt it down, and pass it through a filter to sift out any micro-plastic. “Right now, we are running it through an analysis and categorizing them based on their chemical composition.”

Spencer Ingley collects snow samples in Antarctica.

He elaborated on a new perspective he gained from this experience. He stated, “We are on a planet so incredibly interconnected, and our individual actions can have a big impact in places on the other side of the planet, even as remote as Antarctica.”

J. Eston Dunn, a senior from Tennessee majoring in conservation biology, is one of Ingley’s students, and spoke about how the trip Ingley experienced impacted him personally. Dunn said, “I think it is important for professors to be role models in so many parts of their lives. Him following this experience encourages other people to follow equally amazing experiences. Him going to Antarctica shows his students the sky's the limit”

Ingley was chosen out of 140,000 applicants to travel to one of the most remote places in the world. He shared how he heard about the application from a student just hours before the deadline. In just under one month, Ingley heard back about his application being accepted.

Ingley and his team hold a BYU–Hawaii flag in Antarctica.

Just before traveling to Antarctica, Ingley and the team spent two weeks in Chile for physical training and team building. Ingley said there was quite a bit of time spent outside hiking, and even working at Torres del Paine, a national park in the Patagonia mountains.

He spoke about some of the work he and the team did while in Chile, specifically in the national park. Ingley commented, “There have been three big tourist-caused forest fires in the last 15 years, which have burned hundreds of thousands of acres worth of trees. So, they are now replanting hundreds of thousands of trees. We helped them in their reforestation project.”

A tent at the base of a mountain range in Antarctica.

The amount of time Ingley spent in Antarctica was a total of nine days. He shared, “On a typical day, we would go out to an area either close to camp or much more remote and spend most of the day collecting samples. We would hike along big transects and collect snow samples every few hundred meters.” Ingley further commented how the areas in which samples were gathered were potentially crevassed.

Explaining what a crevasse is, Ingley shared, “A glacier is basically a big frozen river, so when it hits places where there is resistance, it cracks and stretches. As it does that, it creates gaps in the ice that sometimes go down hundreds of feet. The snow gets blown over these crevassed areas and forms snow bridges. So, without any warning, you could be walking along and all of a sudden fall into a crevasse. When we were in these crevassed areas, we would walk in teams of four, connected by ropes and harnesses to be able to pull an individual out of a crevasse, if needed.”

Among the new perspectives Ingley gained after his trip, he shared how his perspective can help take on the environmental issues today. He said, “Working on this project with a diverse and incredible team helped me feel more optimistic about our situation. It made fixing the problems we have created seem attainable.”

Spencer Ingley stands at a sign that reads "Geographic South Pole" with an American flag in the background

Sanchez-Smith commented on a new perspective he has gained. He said, “The more we realize there are problems, the scarier things get. But at the same time, the scarier things get, the more we unite as humanity.”

Dunn added, “I would encourage other students to pursue internships like this. It is important for undergraduates to seek out experiences, regardless of when they are or how they are, and let them fall into place because, more often than not, it will.”