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Biogeosciences

GeoTalk: Investigating the transport of plastic pollution in the oceans

GeoTalk: Investigating the transport of plastic pollution in the oceans

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at the Grantham Institute at Imperial Collage London, and winner of the 2016 OS Outstanding Young Scientist Award. As an expert in understanding how oceans transport all kinds of materials, from water and heat through to plastics, Erik has gained detailed knowledge about how water masses move, particularly how they travel from one ocean basin to the next. He has applied his knowledge to understanding problems with societal impacts, such as what dynamics govern drifting debris that collects in garbage patches and the pathways of the Fukushima radioactive plume. 

First, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

I am a physicist by training, with an PhD in Physical Oceanography from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. After finishing my PhD in 2009, I did a two-year postdoc at the University of Miami. In 2011, I became a Fellow and lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. And then in early 2015 I came back to Europe, as a lecturer at Imperial College London. So I’ve been moving around a bit, living and working in three different continents in the past 5 years. It’s been a fantastic journey and I’m really happy to have lived in such beautiful and fun places.

During EGU 2016, you received the Outstanding Young Scientist Award from the Ocean Sciences Division. You presented your recent work on modelling the global distribution of floating plastic pollution in the oceans. How big a problem does plastic pollution present to our oceans and why should people care?

It’s shocking how much plastic there is in the ocean. Quite literally these days, it’s hard to go to a place in the ocean and not find tiny pieces of plastic. In nearly every surface trawl, sediment sample, or biopsy we take, we find plastic.

However, while we find  plastic everywhere, we have no idea what its global extent is. There are really only two numbers that are known with some confidence in the global ocean plastic budget: the total amount of plastic floating at the surface today is in the order hundreds of thousands of tonnes. And the total amount of plastic going into the ocean in a single year is in the order of 10 million metric tonnes. So the flux is 2 orders of magnitude larger than the stock. In other words, more than 99% of the plastic in the ocean is not at the surface!

How, exactly, do you go about building the  models which help you investigate where the plastic in the ocean waters is?

My research tries to find out where all this plastic is, by tracking it virtually in high-resolution Ocean General Circulation Models such as NEMO.  NEMO is a large European computer simulation that replicates the movement of ocean water around the globe. Within this oceanic flow field, we’re literally tracking billions of virtual plastic particles, from their sources on land as they are carried around by the ocean currents.

The difficult bit is to make the virtual particles behave like plastic. In order to realistically simulate the pathways and fate of the plastic, we need to simulate fragmentation (how plastics break up), ingestion (animals who eat plastic), biofouling (how algae grow on the plastic), beaching (how plastic particles end up on coastlines) and a dozen other processes that happen to plastic in the real ocean. That’s what my team and I are working on!

Then, once we can track the plastic within models with reasonable accuracy, we can start asking important questions like: Where are ecosystems most at risk? Whose plastic ends up where? And where can we best clean up the plastic?

Erik, along with colleague David Fuchs, created Plastic Adrift.com. A page which models the journey of plastics in the oceans. The research used to create the page is described in this IOP paper: http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/7/4/044040/meta;jsessionid=3C17B7D3F10B29C6CCF1BD2BA132BF76.c5.iopscience.cld.iop.org

Erik, along with colleague David Fuchs, created Plastic Adrift.org. A page which models the journey of plastics in the oceans. The research used to create the simulation is described in this IOP paper.

So, are you at a stage where you can reliably track particles of plastic in your simulation? And if so, what can you tell us about the distribution of plastic across the world’s oceans?

No, we’re not nearly there yet. We’re just beginning with this exciting project, which was awarded a large European Research Council Grant this year. Ask me again in five years 😉

The outlook isn’t positive, so, how can we go about mitigating the problem?

The situation is pretty dire, indeed. Global plastic production has increased exponentially over the last decades, and there is no reason to think that exponential growth will slow. So the main aim should be to prevent plastic from going into the ocean in the first place.

Last May, I was invited to the UK Parliament to give oral evidence to a Select Committee about my thoughts on a country-wide ban on microbeads used in cosmetics (an issue which has been in the news recently). Such a ban is now supported by the UK Government, which is fantastic news. But microbeads from cosmetics represent only 0.1% of all plastic entering the ocean from the UK. There is really much more work to do. We need better filtering of plastic particles and fibres in sewage treatment plants. We need much better recycling techniques. We need innovative new plastics that are less harmful.

And we need a better understanding of how the plastic in the ocean interacts with marine life, from charismatic megafauna down to phytoplankton and microbes. In particular, I call on EGU’s ocean biogeochemistry community to take up the challenge of understanding the interactions between plastic particulates and biofouling. There’s such an enormous knowledge gap there, and we need all the help we can get.

Given your experience advising the UK government on a matter as significant as plastic pollution in the oceans, how important do you think it is for early career scientists to play a role in advising policy-makers when it comes to environmental issues?

Meet Erik! Credit: Erik van Sebille

Meet Erik! Credit: Erik van Sebille

I think it is extremely important to make sure that your research gets out to the people who can use it to make decisions. Politicians and other stakeholders are always keen to hear about the latest science; they don’t have time and expertise to read through all of the scientific literature so it is partly up to us scientists to point them to the latest findings. It doesn’t matter whether you are an early career researcher or a seasoned senior professor, if you are funded by public money then you have a duty to give results back to society.

For the past twelve months the EGU has been working on developing its science for policy programme. ‘Science for policy’ involves applying scientific knowledge to the decision-making process to strengthen the resulting policies. If like Erik, this is an area you are interested in, or one where your research findings could make a difference, why not visit our policy pages on the website? They include  a range of resources aimed at informing scientists about the world of science policy and initiatives to help you get involved.

Erik, thank you for talking to us today. Our final question of the interview is, perhaps a little simplistic given the scale of the problem, but is there anything everyone could be doing at home to minimise the amount of plastic that makes its way to the oceans?

I think it starts with awareness. Be aware what you do with your used plastics. Don’t just chuck it out. And discuss the issue with your family and friends. I think that a great deal of progress can be made simply by being more careful how we discard our plastic waste.

Imaggeo on Mondays: what corals can tell us about past climate change

Imaggeo on Mondays: what corals can tell us about past climate change

Reconstructing past climates is a tricky task at the best of times. It requires an ample data set and a good understanding of proxies. Add into the mix some underwater fieldwork and the challenge got a whole lot harder! In today’s Imaggeo on Monday’s post, Isaac Kerlow explains how information locked in corals can tell the story of past climates and how important it is, not only to carry out the research, but to communicate the results to the public! If you stick with this post until the end you’ll be rewarded with a super informative video too!

One of the main science communication initiatives at the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS) is about producing short films that showcase the scientific research of the principal investigators. The collection of films created by the EOS Art+Media group is called the “Knowledge Capsules” and they are free to view and download on the internet. On this occasion the filmmaking team travelled to Checheng, Southern Taiwan, to document and explain the field methods of the Marine Geochemistry team.

Creating a successful science film for a mainstream audience requires an understanding of the scientists’ methods, theories and goals. During principal photography that takes place during expeditions the filmmaking team needs to stay a step ahead of the game in order to capture the critical moments such as this image where Dr. Nathalie Goodkin passes a sample of Porites coral (a type of stony, finger-like, coral) to a scientist aboard the research vessel.

The Marine Geochemistry team at EOS investigates Earth’s climate history through the study of corals. This region is where the Kuroshio Current intrudes into the South China Sea. The team extracted samples of the Porites coral species that are approximately 300 to 500 years old, as well as seawater in which these corals grow. Because the chemical composition of corals depends on the seawater in which they grow, analysing the coral samples can give an indication of the temperature and salinity of the surrounding seawater. With these results, the team is able to reconstruct global climate systems throughout several centuries.

By Isaac Kerlow, Earth Observatory of Singapore

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Living flows

Imaggeo on Mondays: Living flows

There are handful true wildernesses left on the planet. Only a few, far flung corners, of the globe remain truly remote and unspoilt. To explore and experience untouched landscapes you might find yourself making the journey to the dunes in Sossuvlei in Namibia, or to the salty plain of the Salar Uyuni in Bolivia. But it’s not necessary to travel so far to discover an area where humans have, so far, left little mark. One of the last wilds is right here in Europe, in the northern territories of Sweden. Today’s spectacular photograph of the Laitaure delta is brought to you by Marc Girons Lopez, one of the winners of the 2016 edition of the EGU’s Photo Contest!

The photograph shows a part of the Laitaure delta, at the entrance of Sarek National Park (Northern Sweden). Sarek is one of the oldest national parks in Europe and it is often considered to be one of the last wild areas in Europe. The Sami people, however, have traditionally used these lands.

This delta is formed by the Rapa River when it flows into Lake Laitaure. The Rapa River springs from the Sarektjåkkå glacier and is fed by over thirty glaciers. The specific flow of the Rapa River — the ratio between its flow and the area of its catchment — is the highest in Sweden. The magnitude of the flow has strong seasonal fluctuations which are reflected in the sediment transport, which can be as high as 10,000 tons per day during the summer. This heavy sediment load gives the river its characteristics greyish colour. The different colours in the backwater zones may be produced by dissolved organic matter from decomposing vegetation.

The delta in this area is flanked by  patches of montane forests along the river banks in an area otherwise covered by marshes. Regarding the fauna, according to Wikipedia the Eurasian teal, the Eurasian wigeon, the greater scaup, the red-breasted merganser, the sedge warbler and the common reed bunting are common in the Laitaure delta.

By Marc Girons Lopez, researcher at the Centre for Natural Disaster Science, Uppsala University

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

 

Imaggeo on Mondays: Coastal erosion

Imaggeo on Mondays: Coastal erosion

Coastlines take a battering from stormy seas, gales, windy conditions and every-day wave action. The combined effect of these processes shapes coastal landscapes across the globe.

In calm weather, constructive waves deposit materials eroded elsewhere and transported along the coast line via longshore-drift, onto beaches, thus building them up. Terrestrial material, brought to beaches by rivers and the wind, also contribute.  In stormy weather, waves become destructive, eroding material away from beaches and sea cliffs.

In some areas, the removal of material far exceeds the quantity of sediments being supplied to sandy stretches, leading to coastal erosion. It is a dynamic process, with the consequences depending largely on the geomorphology of the coast.

Striking images of receding coastlines, where households once far away from a cliff edge, tumble into the sea after a storm surge, are an all too familiar consequence of the power of coastal erosion.

In sandy beaches where dunes are common, coastal erosion can be managed by the addition of vegetation. In these settings, it is not only the force of the sea which drives erosion, but also wind, as the fine, loose sand grains are easily picked-up by the breeze, especially in blustery weather.

Grasses, such as the ones pictured in this week’s featured imaggeo image, work by slowing down wind speeds across the face of the dunes and trapping and stabilising wind-blown sands. The grasses don’t directly prevent erosion, but they do allow greater accumulation of sands over short periods of time, when compared to vegetation-free dunes.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

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