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More Microplastics in Deep Sea Than Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Oceans
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Microplastics have infiltrated the earth's largest ecosystem: the deep ocean.

Researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) used small drone submarines to take sea-water samples from the ocean surface all the way down to the floor, at 3,200 feet. They found that there were actually more microplastics 1,000 feet below sea level than there are in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, USA Today reported. The findings come as people around the world prepare to celebrate World Oceans Day Saturday and gives new insight into how plastics impact the entire marine environment.


"We didn't think there would be four times as much plastic floating at depth than at the surface," Monterey Bay Aquarium Chief Scientist Kyle Van Houtan told USA Today. But that is what the researchers found when they compared their samples.

The samples were taken off the California coast in Monterey Bay, where the continent suddenly plummets, making it easier for researchers to investigate a part of the ocean whose plastic content has not been studied in depth, NPR reported.

"The deep ocean is the largest ecosystem on the planet," Van Houtan told NPR, "and we don't know anything about the plastic in the deep ocean."

The research, published in Scientific Reports Thursday, begins to fill in that knowledge gap. It found that the highest concentration of microplastics was between 600 and 2,000 feet below sea level. The maximum concentration discovered was 16 particles per cubic meter of water, four particles per cubic meter more than are found in the garbage patch.

"Scientists are now beginning to realize that microplastics are truly ubiquitous. They've been found from the seafloor to the mountain tops, in the air we breathe and in the salt we put on our meals," University of Exeter conservation scientist Brendan Godley, who was not involved in the research, told USA Today.

The plastic in the deep ocean is also making its way into the food web via the creatures that live there. Researchers sampled two: pelagic red crabs and giant larvaceans, a creature similar to a tadpole. Both are species that travel from the surface to the ocean floor daily. Plastic was found in all of the sampled animals' digestive tracts, The Guardian reported.

It was actually the prevalence of microplastics in the guts of deep sea species that inspired the research, study author and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego scientist Anela Choy told The Guardian. She said she would routinely find plastic bits like bottle caps or trash bags while studying the diets of tuna and other fish who live around 1,000 feet below sea level.

"It was so strange," Choy told The Guardian. "We were seeing recognizable pieces of human society."




Another thing that surprised the researchers was the type of plastic they found. While some have hypothesized that the ma

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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