Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Microplastics Are Wafting in on the Sea Breeze

Oceans
Microplastics Are Wafting in on the Sea Breeze
The beach of Mimiza in France where researchers measured microplastics on the sea breeze. NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP via Getty Images

Around eight million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the world's oceans every year, but researchers still don't know where it all ends up.


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."

Plastic bails, left, and aluminum bails, right, are photographed at the Green Waste material recovery facility on Thursday, March 28, 2019, in San Jose, California. Aric Crabb / Digital First Media / Bay Area News via Getty Images

By Courtney Lindwall

Coined in the 1970s, the classic Earth Day mantra "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" has encouraged consumers to take stock of the materials they buy, use, and often quickly pitch — all in the name of curbing pollution and saving the earth's resources. Most of us listened, or lord knows we tried. We've carried totes and refused straws and dutifully rinsed yogurt cartons before placing them in the appropriately marked bins. And yet, nearly half a century later, the United States still produces more than 35 million tons of plastic annually, and sends more and more of it into our oceans, lakes, soils, and bodies.

Read More Show Less
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Rise and Resist activist group marched together to demand climate and racial justice. Steve Sanchez / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Alexandria Villaseñor

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

My journey to becoming an activist began in late 2018. During a trip to California to visit family, the Camp Fire broke out. At the time, it was the most devastating and destructive wildfire in California history. Thousands of acres and structures burned, and many lives were lost. Since then, California's wildfires have accelerated: This past year, we saw the first-ever "gigafire," and by the end of 2020, more than four million acres had burned.

Read More Show Less
Trending
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced a pair of climate-related secretarial orders on Friday, April 16. U.S. Department of the Interior

By Jessica Corbett

As the Biden administration reviews the U.S. government's federal fossil fuels program and faces pressure to block any new dirty energy development, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland won praise from environmentalists on Friday for issuing a pair of climate-related secretarial orders.

Read More Show Less
David Attenborough narrates "The Year Earth Changed," premiering globally April 16 on Apple TV+. Apple

Next week marks the second Earth Day of the coronavirus pandemic. While a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions has limited our ability to explore the natural world and gather with others for its defense, it is still possible to experience the wonder and inspiration from the safety of your home.

Read More Show Less

By Michael Svoboda

For April's bookshelf we take a cue from Earth Day and step back to look at the bigger picture. It wasn't climate change that motivated people to attend the teach-ins and protests that marked that first observance in 1970; it was pollution, the destruction of wild lands and habitats, and the consequent deaths of species.

Read More Show Less