Scientists from the University of Michigan use NASA satellite data to detect microplastics.
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic that are less than five millimetres in length, because plastics degrade slowly over hundreds to thousands of years, microplastics have a high probability of ingestion.
When in the ocean, microplastics can be carried hundreds of thousands of miles away from the source, making it extremely difficult to track and remove them.
In order to help track microplastics, researchers are now using NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS), a constellation of eight small satellites that measure wind speeds above the Earth’s oceans and provide information about the strength of hurricanes.
CYGNSS also uses radar to measure ocean roughness, which is affected by several factors including wind speed and debris floating in the water.
Working backwards, the team looked for places where the ocean was smoother than expected given the wind speed, which they thought could indicate the presence of microplastics.
They then compared those areas to observations and model predictions where microplastics congregate in the ocean.
The scientists found that microplastics tend to be present in smoother waters, demonstrating that CYGNSS data can be used as a tool to track ocean microplastic from space.
The results were published online on June 9, 2021 in IEEE Transactions of Geoscience and Remote Sensing. The work was done by Chris Ruf, professor at the University of Michigan and principal investigator for CYGNSS, and undergraduate student Madeline C. Evans.
In related news, microplastics may be responsible for a loss of oxygen in the ocean, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications.
Tiny zooplankton can also mistake very small plastic particles for food and ingest them either accidentally or by chance.
The researchers found that the resulting changes in the ecosystems may be responsible for a loss of oxygen in the ocean beyond that caused by global warming.
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