Ocean Plastic Levels May Be Underestimated

By on May 3, 2016

Oceanographers studying plastic in the world’s oceans commonly go to one of the five gyres and sample the plastics there using a surface tow net. From there, they predict what ocean plastic levels are worldwide. But this approach may not yield the most accurate results, according to a researcher from the University of Delaware, because its focus is on the surface.

Instead of just sampling plastics at the surface, Tobias Kukulka, a physical oceanographer at the university, argues that more sampling down into the water column needs to be done. His guess is that ocean turbulence acts on the plastics at the surface and mixes them down into the water column along with other pollutants.

With this thought in mind, he worked with collaborators at the University of Washington and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to model the effects that winds and waves could have on ocean plastic. The results of that effort indicate that the amount of plastic thought to be in the world’s oceans may be underestimated.

The findings are published in the Journal of Physical Oceanography.

Top image: Plastic pollution lines a beach. (Credit: Timothy Townsend)

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