Microplastics million times more abundant in the ocean than previously thought


Share post:

Nothing seems safe from plastic contamination. A new study by NSF-funded researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography suggests there could be a million times more pieces of plastic in the ocean than previously estimated.

Microplastics million times more abundant in the ocean than previously thought
Scientists measured microplastics found in salps, pictured here
[Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography]

Biological oceanographer Jennifer Brandon found some of the tiniest microplastics in seawater at much higher concentrations than previously measured. Her method showed that the traditional way of counting marine microplastics is likely missing the smallest particles, suggesting that the number of microplastics in the ocean is off by five to seven orders of magnitude.

Brandon now estimates that the ocean is contaminated by 8.3 million pieces of mini-microplastics per cubic meter of water. Her discovery is published in Limnology and Oceanography Letters.

“For years we’ve been doing microplastics studies the same way, by using a net to collect samples,” Brandon said. “But anything smaller than that net mesh has been escaping.”

Most plastics are so chemically strong that neither microbes in soil nor water can break down the elemental bonds.

For answers, Brandon turned to salps, gelatinous filter-feeding invertebrates that suck in water to eat and to propel themselves around the upper 6,500 feet of the ocean. Their stomachs were a likely place to find mini-microplastics.

Of the 100 salps Brandon surveyed from water samples collected in 2009, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017, 100 percent had mini-microplastics in their guts.

The research was an outgrowth of basic research that took place at NSF’s Central California Current Long-Term Ecological Research site.

“Despite tremendous interest in microplastics, we are just beginning to understand the scale and effects of these ocean contaminants,” said Dan Thornhill, a program director in NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences. “This study demonstrates that marine plastics are far more abundant than anyone realized and can be found potentially everywhere in the ocean. This is troubling, especially when the consequences for the environment and human health remain largely unknown.”

Source: National Science Foundation [December 13, 2019]



Related articles

Coral reefs near equator less affected by ocean warming

Ocean warming is threatening coral reefs globally, with persistent thermal stress events degrading coral reefs worldwide, but a...

Research points to unprecedented and worrying rise in sea levels

A new study led by Simon Fraser University's Dean of Science, Prof. Paul Kench, has discovered new evidence...

Using gemstones’ unique characteristics to uncover ancient trade routes

Since ancient times, gemstones have been mined and traded across the globe, sometimes traveling continents from their origin....

Historians to climate researchers: Let’s talk

History can tell us a lot about environmental upheaval, say Princeton University historians John Haldon and Lee Mordechai....

West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapse is under way

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which holds enough water to raise global seas by several feet, is thinning....

Giant penguin fossils found in Antarctica

Argentine experts have discovered the fossils of a two-metre-tall penguin that lived in Antarctica 34 million years ago. A...

Underwater surveys in Emerald Bay reveal the nature and activity of Lake Tahoe faults

Emerald Bay, California, a beautiful location on the southwestern shore of Lake Tahoe, is surrounded by rugged landscape,...

Global temperature change attributable to external factors, confirms new study

Researchers at the University of Oxford have confirmed that human activity and other external factors are responsible for...