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."
- Windborne Microplastics Are Everywhere - EcoWatch ›
- 'It's Raining Plastic': Researchers Find Microscopic Fibers in ... ›
- More Microplastics in Deep Sea Than Great Pacific Garbage Patch ... ›
- Microplastics 'From the Air' Found in Arctic Snow and Ice - EcoWatch ›
- Microplastics Are Raining Down on Cities - EcoWatch ›
- Ocean Microplastics Are Drastically Underestimated, New Research Suggests - EcoWatch ›
- Microplastics Are Increasing in Our Lives, New Research Finds - EcoWatch ›
- Paint: The Big Source of Ocean Microplastics You Didn’t Know About - EcoWatch ›
- Device to Capture Microplastics From Tires Wins Design Award - EcoWatch ›
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Trump Denies CDC Director's 2021 Timeline for Coronavirus Vaccine ›
- Trump Orders Hospitals to Stop Sending COVID-19 Data to CDC ... ›
- Two White House Staffers Test Positive for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Trump Admin to Disband Coronavirus Task Force - EcoWatch ›
- Pence Offers 'Prayers' as Hurricane Laura Hits Gulf Coast While ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Every September for the past 11 years, non-profit the Climate Group has hosted Climate Week NYC, a chance for business, government, activist and community leaders to come together and discuss solutions to the climate crisis.
- Covering the 2020 Elections as a Climate Story - EcoWatch ›
- Coronavirus Delays 2020 Earth Overshoot Day by Three Weeks ... ›
By Elliot Douglas
The coronavirus pandemic has altered economic priorities for governments around the world. But as wildfires tear up the west coast of the United States and Europe reels after one of its hottest summers on record, tackling climate change remains at the forefront of economic policy.
- German Business Leaders Call for Climate Action With COVID-19 ... ›
- Climate Activists Protest Germany's New Datteln 4 Coal Power Plant ... ›
By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.