In an effort to combat the millions of tons of marine litter floating in the ocean, researchers at Florida State University have developed a new virtual tool to track this debris.
Their work, which was published in Frontiers in marine sciences, will help provide answers to help monitor and address the issue of marine litter.
Eric Chassignet, director of the Center for Ocean-Atmosphere Prediction Studies and Professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences.
“Marine litter is found all over the world and we don’t fully understand its impact on the ocean ecosystem or human health,” said Eric Chassignet, director of the Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies (COAPS) at FSU and main author of the article. “That is why it is important to learn more about this problem and to develop effective ways to alleviate it.”
Marine litter is a big problem for Earth’s oceans. Animals can become entangled in debris. Scientists have found tiny pieces of plastic inside fish, turtles and birds – litter that blocks the digestive tract and alters feeding behavior, altering growth and reproduction. Most of this marine litter is poorly managed plastic waste, which is of particular concern because plastics stay in the ocean for a long time.
Understanding where marine litter goes once it is in the ocean is an important part of understanding the problem and helping individual countries and the international community develop plans to deal with the problem. The United Nations, which funded this work, is trying to mitigate the impact of poorly managed plastic waste, and this work can inform their policies and regulations.
Take for example the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a pile of marine debris in the Pacific Ocean. Tracking marine litter will help answer questions about whether it is growing and questions about how much plastic is breaking down or sinking to the bottom of the ocean. The virtual tool also shows how countries around the world are connected.
“Knowing where marine litter dumped into the ocean from a given country goes and the origin of the litter found on the coast of a given country is important information for policy makers,” said Chassignet. “For example, it can help decision makers determine where to focus their efforts to deal with this problem.”
The tracking tool uses global data on poorly managed plastic waste as input to its model. The model uses ocean and air current data to track marine debris from 2010. Launch the website and you can watch the colorful lines swirl across the Earth’s oceans. He looks pretty – until you realize he’s following the trash.
COAPS – an interdisciplinary research center focused on air-sea interaction, the ocean-atmosphere-land-ice system and climate prediction – turns 25 this year. Researchers at the center use sophisticated ocean models to map the ocean and predict ocean currents that help scientists understand where marine litter dumped into the ocean is likely to travel and end its journey.
“If you have data for the last 20 years, a lot can be done in terms of modeling and simulation,” said Chassignet.
COAPS researchers Xiaobiao Xu and Olmo Zavala-Romero were co-authors of this article.
This work was supported by the United Nations Environment Program.
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Material provided by Florida State University. Original written by Bill Wellock. Note: Content can be changed for style and length.