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Current Affairs

Underwater avalanches trapping microplastics

Date: 26 March 2020 Tags: Miscellaneous

Issue

A collaborative research has revealed for the first time how submarine sediment avalanches can transport microplastics from land into the deep ocean.

 

Background

Over 10 million tons of plastic pollution is exported into the oceans each year. It is thought that around 99% of this is stored in the deep sea, often prefentially accumulating in submarine canyons.

 

Details

  • The study also revealed that these flows are responsible for sorting different types of microplastics, burying some, and moving others vast distances across the sea floor.

  • These findings may help predict the location of future seafloor microplastic hotspots, which in turn could help direct research into the impact of microplastics on marine life.

  • It was previously not known how plastic pollution gets to the deep sea from land. The new research has shown that microplastics can be moved by gravity-driven sediment flows, which can travel thousands of kilometers over the seafloor.

  • Researchers developed techniques to analyse the sediment carried within the flows and deposited on the seafloor, and the samples were analysed.

  • The high concentration of microplastic fibres in sand layers at the base of the flow is thought to be because they get more easily trapped by sand particles.

  • Studying the distribution of different types of plastic on the seafloor is important because the size and type of plastic particle determines how toxins build up the surface, as well as how likely it is the plastic will enter the gut of any animal that eats it, and what animal may eat it.

  • These experiments show that sediment flows have the potential to transport large quantities of plastic pollution from nearshore environments into the deep sea, where they may impact local ecosystems.

  • The next steps for research will involve sampling and monitoring deep-sea submarine canyon, to understand how robustly these experimental findings can be applied to natural systems and the effects on deep-sea ecosystems.