Microplastics are the most dominant particulate contaminant identified in the global ocean. Emerging evidence for harm to biota, ecosystems, and potentially to human health, currently makes microplastics pollution an issue of enormous concern for society. Moreover, interaction of microplastics with marine particulate organic matter can potentially alter carbon transport to the deep ocean, which has implications for global climate.
Over the past 20 years, scientists at the National Oceanography Centre have collected a large number of samples from various regions in the open ocean from surface down to seabed. The microplastics research team are quantifying and characterising microplastics in these samples to understand how offshore microplastic distribution changes in time and space. This information then helps the team track microplastics from their sources to the areas in the ocean where they tend to collect. It also helps predict future microplastics levels and the characteristics of the contamination.
The results will be invaluable for development of effective microplastics mitigation policies, should this material turn out to cause significant damage to marine ecosystem structure and function.
Microplastics research at NOCS is conducted mainly within the EU H2020 AtlantOS programme. Through this programme scientists use the capabilities and facilities of the ocean observing systems in the Atlantic Ocean to answer the fundamental questions regarding the presence, significance and impact of microplastic pollution in the open ocean. Specifically, the team quantify and characterise distribution, composition and morphology of microplastics in the Atlantic Ocean, their downward flux to the abyss (3000 m) and accumulation at the sea-floor (4000-5000 m) over the past three decades. They use large volume pumps to measure instantaneous concentrations of microplastics in the top 1000 m of the water column. They investigate how much microplastics penetrate from the surface to the deep ocean in different regions of the Atlantic, how these downward fluxes change over time and in relation to biogeochemical processes such as primary production and downward flux of particulate organic carbon. For this, the team examined sinking material collected by time-series sediment traps deployed at 3000 m depth at Porcupine Abyssal Plain (PAP) fixed-point observatory in the northeast Atlantic (since 1989) and in the centres of the North and South Atlantic oligotrophic gyres (NOG and SOG sites respectively; since 2007), where microplastics tend to accumulate. They also trace the changes in accumulation and burial of microplastics in the deep-sea sediment in relation to past physical and biogeochemical processes by examining the sediment cores (4850 m) collected at PAP since 1985.
Visit AtlantOS website https://www.atlantos-h2020.eu/
We use the infrastructure of NERC-funded LOCATE programme to collect microplastics in the rivers and estuaries across Great Britain and to study fluxes of microplastics along the land-ocean transition.
Visit Locate website: http://locate.ac.uk/
NOC Staff working on Microplastic Research:
Professor Richard Lampitt
Team leader. Biogeochemist with particular expertise in transport and processing of particulate material.
Dr Katsia Pabortsava
Post-Doctoral research scientist with major expertise in the collection and analysis of microplastics.
Dr Dan Mayor
Biological oceanographer with expertise in plankton ecology and the factors with affect ecosystem structure and function.
Ms. Nina Faure Beaulieu
PhD Student working on the distribution and fate of microplastics in rivers, estuaries and the open ocean.
Dr Claire Evans
Microbiologist with interest in the ways in which microplastic contamination may affect the microbiota of seas and the ocean.
Microplastics research at NOCS has developed very rapidly over the past 3 years with initial support from the EU programme AtlantOS and from NERC. An extremely advanced FTIR has recently been purchased specifically to characterise in high-quality, rapid and automated manner the microplastics down to 3micron in size in a variety of sample types. Our sample set comprise sediment cores from the abyssal Atlantic (4000-5000m water depth) collected since 1985, suspended particles collected recently at a number of stations on a transect from the UK to the Falkland Islands down to 300 m depth, and time-series sediment trap material collected at 3000 m in the northeast (since 1989) and subtropical (since 2007) Atlantic . These unique samples will provide for the first time information on the wide-scale distribution and temporal variability of microplastics and their sedimentation. In addition, the infrastructure of the LOCATE programme is now being used to collect particulate material in rivers and estuaries to quantify and characterise the source term of microplastics and how they are transported to the seas and oceans.
Professor Richard Lampitt talking about the microplastics research here at the NOC
Microplastics research here at the NOC