A brief example of a virtual tool developed by the Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies to track marine litter. The colored lines show the path of debris in the ocean. Courtesy of the Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies

In an effort to fight the millions of tons of marine litter floating in the ocean, Florida State University researchers have developed a new virtual tool to track this debris.

Their work, which was published in Frontiers in Marine Science, will help provide answers to help monitor and deal with the problem of marine litter.

“Knowing where the marine litter released into the ocean by a given country goes and the origin of the litter found on the coastline of a given country are important pieces of information for policymakers,” said Eric Chassignet, director of FSU’s Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies (COAPS) and the paper’s lead author. “For example, it can help policymakers determine where to focus their efforts for dealing with this problem.”

“Marine litter is found around the world, and we do not fully understand its impact on the ocean ecosystem or human health,” he continued “That’s why it’s important to learn more about this problem and develop effective ways to mitigate it.”

Marine litter is a big problem for the Earth’s oceans. Animals can get entangled in debris. Plastic is the most abundant type of marine litter and it is found in all of the world’s oceans and seas, even in remote areas far from human activities. It is a major concern because plastics remain in the oceans for a long time. Scientists have found tiny pieces of plastic inside fish, turtles and birds — litter that blocks digestive tracts and alters feeding behavior, altering growth and reproduction. Most of that marine litter is mismanaged plastic waste, which is of particular concern because plastics remain in the ocean for a long time.

In 2016, the global production of plastics was approximately 330 million metric tons and that amount is estimated to double within the next 20 years

Understanding where marine litter goes once it’s in the ocean is a big part of understanding the issue and helping individual countries and the international community to develop plans to deal with the problem. The United Nations, which funded this work, is trying to mitigate the impact of mismanaged plastic waste, and this work can inform their policies and regulations.

The tracking tool uses worldwide mismanaged plastic waste data as inputs for its model. The model uses data about ocean and air currents to track marine debris starting from 2010. Fire up the website and you can watch as colorful lines swirl across the Earth’s oceans. It looks pretty — until you realize it is tracking litter.

Further Reading

Chassignet EP, Xu X and Zavala-Romero O (2021) Tracking Marine Litter With a Global Ocean Model: Where Does It Go? Where Does It Come From? Front. Mar. Sci. 8:667591. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2021.667591

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