Microplastics Research at the NOC

Microplastics

Sampling locations (Click to enlarge)

Mission Statement

To understand the extent and implications of microplastic pollution on the health of marine ecosystems.

Overview

The risk posed by plastics to the marine environment and the human population depends on both the level of exposure to these contaminants and the harm they cause at these exposure levels. Our group carries out cutting-edge research to assess the distribution and transport of plastics to and within the ocean to better understand plastic fate and ecosystem exposure. This is an essential component if we are to understand the effects of plastic contamination on ecosystem health and how this is likely to change in the future. 

This research includes:

  • Assessing inputs of plastics to the oceans from land via rivers and estuaries
  • Downward flow of plastic particles into the deep sea
  • Quantifying the transport of plastics, as well as their accumulation in the deep seafloor
  • Identification and classification of plastic litter in biodiversity hotspots
  • The interactions and ingestion of plastics by marine life

By measuring the distribution and interactions of plastics from the ocean’s surface through to deep-sea sediment, and how this changes over time, we aim to better understand the impacts of plastics in marine systems. Such information can be used to assess and predict trends in plastic distribution and the likely environmental implications, informing future regulations surrounding waste management, manufacturing processes and environmental monitoring. 


 

NOC’s Microplastics Laboratory

AtlantOS

Optimising and Enhancing the Integrated Atlantic Ocean Observing Systems (April 2015 – June 2019)
Visit project website: https://www.atlantos-h2020.eu/project-information/work-packages/wp3

AtlantOS is a €20M EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation project that aimed to optimise and enhance the Integrated Atlantic Ocean Observing Systems. As a part of AtlantOS (Task 3.2 OceanSITES Biogeochemistry) NOC researchers used the capabilities and facilities of the ocean observing systems (e.g. fixed-point observatories), in the Atlantic Ocean to quantify and characterise the presence, distribution and fate of microplastic pollution in the open ocean.


CLASS

Climate Linked Atlantic Sector Science (April 2018 to August 2023)
Visit project website: https://projects.noc.ac.uk/class

CLASS is a £22M NERC National Capability project, which includes long-term (decadal) assessment of the impacts of human-induced change on ocean conditions and important deep-sea ecosystems in the North Atlantic. Specific activities include tracking of deep-sea microplastics transport pathways using ocean current measurements and sampling, mapping of litter in submarine canyons using deep-sea robots, and ocean-scale modelling to track particulate fluxes.


“Developing a Global Listening Network for Turbidity Currents and Seafloor Processes”

This is a £800k NERC research project focused on developing novel technology to monitor particulate fluxes along two submarine canyons located directly offshore from some of the World’s biggest rivers: Congo Canyon (West Africa) and Gaoping Canyon (Taiwan). The project includes sampling of the seafloor and water column to determine the role that powerful submarine avalanches (turbidity currents) play on dispersing or concentrating microplastics within the deep sea.


CODEMAP

“Complex Deep-sea Environments: Mapping habitat heterogeneity As Proxy for biodiversity” was a 1.4M EUR Starting Grant project funded by the European Research Council (Grant No 258482; April 2011 – January 2017). While focussing on the development of habitat mapping techniques for complex deep-sea environments, a large volume of seabed video data were collected, which gave us insights in the distribution of plastic litter. Submarine Canyons, in particular, act as conduits between the shallow and deep waters, and focus a lot of human garbage. 

NOC Staff working on Microplastic Research:

Professor Richard Lampitt

Professor Richard Lampitt

Team leader. Biogeochemist with particular expertise in transport and processing of particulate material.

Dr Mike Clare

Dr Mike Clare

Process-based sedimentologist focused on quantifying microplastic transport processes and pathways from source to sink using novel monitoring techniques and analysis of seafloor deposits.

Dr Jen Durden

Dr Jen Durden

Research topics: spatial and temporal variation in deep-sea communities, abyssal invertebrates, metabolic theory of ecology, carbon flow in food webs, environmental policy related to deep-sea mining and plastic in the ocean, underwater photography

Dr Claire Evans

Dr Claire Evans

Microbiologist with interest in the ways in which microplastic contamination may affect the microbiota of seas and the ocean.

Alice Horton

Alice Horton

Anthropogenic Contaminants Scientist with an expertise in aquatic microplastic pollution which includes sampling, analysis and ecotoxicological testing.

Dr Veerle Huvenne

Dr Veerle Huvenne

Marine geoscientist with more than ten years of experience in the study of complex deep-sea environments such as cold-water coral reefs, submarine canyons, hydrothermal vents or sandy contourites

Dr Dan Mayor

Dr Dan Mayor

Biological oceanographer with expertise in plankton ecology and the factors with affect ecosystem structure and function.

Dr Katsia Pabortsava

Dr Katsia Pabortsava

Post-Doctoral research scientist with major expertise in the collection and analysis of microplastics.

Video stills of plastic litter on the seabed

Sampling Methods

The sampling that we carry out is diverse and may include manually taking plastic samples onshore, using small coastal vessels, large ocean-going research ships and remote autonomous equipment deployed in the ocean interior. Research expeditions give us the unparalleled capability to collect samples from otherwise inaccessible places in the open ocean.

We use various types of equipment to collect samples for analysis of plastics from the different parts of the ocean and on different time scales, for example:

  • Stand alone in situ pumps (SAPs) instantaneously capture plastic particles from the water column by filtering large volumes of seawater (> 1000 L) through a fine mesh. This sampling method produces depth profiles of plastics throughout the water column.
  • Sediment traps are similar to rain gauges and collect marine particles including plastics that sink from the ocean surface to depth. These devices are moored in the abyss (3000 m) for approximately one year to collect sinking particles in a continuous manner. They allow us to measure directly temporal changes (days to years) in magnitude and characteristics of plastics that sink to the deep ocean.
  • Sediment cores are cylindrical tubes that are pushed into the seafloor to collect the sediment, preserving its layered structure. By examining the different layers of the core, we can assess the accumulation of plastics in the ocean floor, understand the processes that resulted in their accumulation, and assess the efficiency of their burial. We prefer to use sampling tools that preserve the seawater-seabed interface, which also allows us to collect bottom-dwelling organisms to assess any interactions with plastics.
  • Video footage provides data on the abundance and spatial variation in large plastic litter at the seafloor.
  • Surface trawls utilise fine nets that can be used to collect small surface organisms such as zooplankton, for the analysis of ingested plastics.

Analytical Methods

Plastics are made of different polymer types and we use advanced tools to detect, identify and characterise them in terms of their composition, size and shape. Our ‘microplastics analyser’ is a state-of-the-art Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) Imaging system which couples the capabilities of a traditional microscope with that of infrared spectrometer. In essence it produces both visible and chemical image of particles, from which their individual plastic types can be distinguished and the dimensions measured. Our FTIR can detect and identify plastic particles as small as three microns in diameter.

 

Professor Richard Lampitt talks about the microplastics research

Microplastics research at the NOC

Plastic in cold water corals