Microplastics Are Wafting in on the Sea Breeze
Last month, researchers discovered surprisingly high concentrations of microplastics on the seafloor. And now, a paper published in PLOS ONE Tuesday finds the ocean is spitting some of them back in our faces in the form of the sea breeze.
"We keep putting millions of tonnes of plastic into the ocean every year," study co-leader and University of Strathclyde Ph.D. candidate Steve Allen told The Guardian. "This research shows that it is not going to stay there forever. The ocean is giving it back to us."
The study is the first to show microplastics being released into the atmosphere by the ocean itself. The researchers found up to 19 microplastic pieces per cubic meter of air along the Bay of Biscay in France, Wired reported. They also demonstrated in a lab how the popping of bubbles could fling microplastics into the air.
Microplastics are just the latest addition to the messy bursting of ocean bubbles, the researchers explained.
"That bubble actually acts as like a sponge for tiny particles like sea salt, viruses, bacteria, and—potentially—plastics, as it comes up through the water column," University of Strathclyde microplastic researcher and co-study leader Deonie Allen told Wired. "So the outside of that bubble is now sort of coated in particles."
When the bubble pops, those particles shoot into the air.
All this means you may have to reassess your idea of a sea breeze. The researchers estimated the ocean spray ejects 136,000 tons of microplastics every year.
"Sea breeze has traditionally been considered 'clean air' but this study shows surprising amounts of microplastic particles being carried by it," Steve Allen told The Guardian. "It appears that some plastic particles could be leaving the sea and entering the atmosphere along with sea salt, bacteria, viruses and algae."
The research challenges a wide consensus about what happens to plastics once they reach the ocean.
"Current plastic pollutant research has generally assumed that once plastics enter the ocean they are there to stay, retained permanently within the ocean currents, biota or sediment until eventual deposition on the sea floor or become washed up onto the beach," the researchers wrote.
But this hypothesis doesn't explain the "missing" plastic, Deonie Allen told The Guardian. She said the amount of plastic on the seafloor was actually less than would be expected given all the plastic that enters the oceans.
If plastic is moving from the ocean to the air, this could have implications for the climate, Wired explained.
Particulate matter from the sea can "seed" clouds, or gather enough moisture to form a fluffy white cloud. If microplastics can do this also, that could lead to whiter clouds that reflect more of the sun's heat.
"So that'll have a positive effect for us for climate change," Steve Allen told Wired.
But there's a catch.
"It'll gather the moisture that's in the air, and not produce rain," he said. "That rain can move somewhere else. So we would get rain somewhere it doesn't belong, and we don't get rain where we need it."
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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