Ocean microplastics a growing concern

Trillions of microscopic pieces of plastic are filling the oceans.

A new study led by researchers at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in England indicates Earth’s oceans have much higher levels of microplastics than previously thought.

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic with diameters of less than five millimeters, produced by the disposal and breakdown of plastic products and industrial waste. Because they are so small, they often elude detection and become trapped in ocean sediment.

Scientists have had a difficult time measuring the amount of microplastics in oceans because the nets used to capture samples range from 333 to 500 micrometers, or 0.333 to 0.5 millimeters. Tiny particles can pass through nets of this size.

Together with scientists from the University of Exeter, the Plymouth Marine Laboratory researchers collected samples from two locations on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean using a 100-micrometer or 0.1-millimeter net.

Both sites chosen, one off the coast of Maine and the other in the English Channel, are coastal locations, where microplastics are most likely to be heavily concentrated and harm ocean life.

The researchers collected 2.5 times as many microplastics using the 100-micrometer net as they did with the 333-micrometer net and ten times more than they did with the 500-micrometer net.

From this data, they calculated that one cubic meter holds approximately 3,700 pieces of microplastic, suggesting the world’s oceans contain between 12.5 and 125 trillion particles rather than the previously estimated five to 50 trillion particles.

“There is often a mismatch between the number and type of microplastics used in experimental studies and those found in the natural environment. This study confirms that microplastic concentration increases with decreasing size and also provides a framework for determining microplastic concentrations in exposure studies, particularly with animals such as zooplankton, that eat micron-sized food,” explained Rachel Coppock, a marine ecologist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

Pennie Lindeque, also of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, said she was surprised by the consistency of the study’s microplastic level findings on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

A paper on the study has been published in the journal Environmental Pollution.

Global warming causing more powerful hurricanes

The number of hurricanes are increasing and global warming is to blame, say scientists.

Hurricanes are getting stronger as the world gets warmer, according to a new analysis.

Studying how hurricanes have changed over decades is difficult. The technological tools scientists use to study them changes constantly, making comparisons from different time periods hard to correlate. While research has generally suggested that global warming would result in more powerful and erratic hurricanes, it has been difficult to document with any degree of scientific certainty. Until now, that is.

A new study of hurricanes published May 18, 2020 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, covers a period of 39 years from 1979 to 2017. Looking at the entire four-decade span and normalizing the data, researchers found a clear trend: storms are getting stronger and major tropical cyclones are occurring more frequently.

The 39-year period of the study overlaps a period when climate change has dramatically accelerated, according to reports by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The earth’s temperature has increased each year in the past 39 years, including eight of the 10 warmest ever recorded. 2018 and 2019, too recent to be included in the study, were also the warmest on record.

“The main hurdle we have for finding trends is that the data are collected using the best technology at the time,” James Kossin, a NOAA scientist and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, said in a statement. “Every year the data are a bit different than last year, each new satellite has new tools and captures data in different ways, so in the end we have a patchwork quilt of all the satellite data that have been woven together.”

To create a consistent record, researchers removed the edges from newer, sharper tropical cyclone images to fit an older standard: images where each pixel represents a 5 square mile area (8 sq/km), taken once every three hours. They also excluded newer satellite images of storms using angles not available in 1998. The remaining dataset includes roughly 225,000 similar-quality images of some 4,000 global tropical cyclones stretching back to the 1980s.

Using the images of tropical cyclones to estimate wind intensity, measured in kilotons, researchers found that the chances of a tropical cyclone becoming a hurricane (sustained winds of 74 mph/119 km/h or higher) have increased significantly over the past 40 years. In addition, the odds of major hurricanes (100-knot storms) have gone up by about 15%, with most of that increase occurring in the last 19 years of the 39-year study period.

Expedition scientists find new coral species in Ireland

Researchers have discovered a new deep-water coral species off the west coast of Ireland.

A team of Irish and British scientists recently discovered gardens of rare deepwater coral and a reef of sponges on the west coast of Ireland. According to Marine Institute’s lead expedition scientist David O’Sullivan, they identified a black coral that may be an entirely new species.

O’Sullivan notes that the sponge reef is the habitat of this type of coral, and it might be able to provide a new source of antibiotics. The only similar one is a reef in Canadian waters.

A three-week mission on Granuaile, an Irish ship, undertook an audit of the Irish deep-sea environment. Scientists captured images on the Porcupine and Rockall Banks. They used the high definition camera on the Marine Institute’s remotely operated vehicle Holland 1 at a depth of up to 2,991m.

They recorded several firsts including a species of octocoral of the genus corallium.  It has large fans and a fragile skeletal appearance.

The black coral has a maroon red or creamy white hue depending on its location. It is an internationally protected species, as people use it to make jewelry in the tropics. The scientists said that cold-water coral reefs are ecosystems. These ecosystems host a diverse range of marine animals including:

  • Sea Fans
  • Sponges
  • Worms
  • Starfish
  • Crustacean
  • Fish Species

This latest study of Ireland’s deep-sea environment is part of the SeaRover project. The researchers will forward the data to the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Researchers find baby white sharks’ North Atlantic ‘hang out’

A new study is the first to confirm the “hang out” for baby white sharks in the North Atlantic.

A new study is the first to confirm baby white sharks’ North Atlantic “hang out” using cutting-edge acoustic and satellite technology. By examining the seasonal migrations and movement patterns of baby white sharks in the North Atlantic Ocean, they were able to pinpoint the location in the New York Bight.

“It is vital that these baby white sharks reach maturity to ensure a stable and abundant future for this important apex predator,” said Matt Ajemian, an assistant research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU’s) Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. “The multi-tagging approach that we used provides us with a 4-D view of their habitats in space and time that will help us to monitor and manage this critically important species.”

“The battery life of the acoustic tags we used will last up to 10 years and will have a sustained acoustic monitoring infrastructure along the U.S. east coast,” said Mike McCallister, a research coordinator at FAU’s Harbor Branch.

“This important technology will provide us with the opportunity to observe changes in white shark distribution, habitat use, and migration over the life span of this species from infant to large juvenile age classes,” he added.

The study’s data will be harnessed to expand our current knowledge of baby white sharks and inform current and future conservation efforts focused on the western north Atlantic white shark population.

“Fisheries and ocean resources managers can use information from our study to better assess the impacts of human activities on these baby white sharks and their habitats,” Ajemian said. “While considered less of a potential threat than overfishing, coastal habitat degradation and possible habitat modification from ocean energy development activities also can be assessed with this new information.”

The findings were published in Scientific Reports.

World’s largest pile of ocean garbage twice the size of Texas

The world’s largest pile of ocean garbage is now 600,000 square miles, which is half the size of Texas.

The world’s largest pile of ocean garbage is now 600,000 square miles, which is half the size of Texas, according to USA Today. It includes around 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic and weighs 88,000 tons, which equal to approximately 500 jumbo jets. The new figures are 16 times higher than previous estimates.

The collection, which is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is made up of plastic, floating trash halfway between Hawaii and California. It was first discovered in the early 1990s and comprised of garbage originating from the Pacific Rim, including nations from Asia, North America, and South America.

The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, the non-profit organization that spearheaded the research, claims that winds and converging ocean currents funnel the garbage into a central location. They obtained the recent data from a three-year mapping effort conducted by The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, six universities, and an aerial sensor company.

“We were surprised by the amount of large plastic objects we encountered,” said Julia Reisser, who is a part of The Ocean Cleanup Foundation. “We used to think most of the debris consists of small fragments, but this new analysis shines a new light on the scope of the debris.”

Joost Dubois, a spokesman with the foundation, believes that we should address the issue soon rather than later. He claims that the trash is much easier to collect while it is large as opposed to when it breaks down into smaller pieces.

“It’s a ticking time bomb of larger material,” he said. “We’ve got to get it before it breaks down into a size that’s too small to collect and also dangerous for marine life.”

Warming oceans could kill 80 percent of Pacific Islands fish

Between 50 and 80 percent of all marine species in the Pacific Islands could perish by the end of this century due to continually warming ocean temperatures, a new study says.

A new study finds that between 50 and 80 percent of all marine species in the Pacific Islands could perish by the end of this century due to continually warming ocean temperatures.

The research by the Nippon Foundation-Nereus Program is published in the journal Marine Policy.

“Under climate change, the Pacific Islands region is projected to become warmer, less oxygenated, more acidic, and have lower production of plankton that form the base of oceanic food webs,” said lead author Rebecca Ash, Nereus Program alumnus and assistant professor at East Caroline University, in a statement. “We found that local extinction of marine species exceeded 50 percent of current biodiversity levels across many regions and at times reached levels over 80 percent.”

The Pacific Islands region is already very warm with minimal seasonal variability. So, animals living there may be ill-equipped to adjust to a changing environment.

The researchers looked at the effects of climate change on more than a thousand species.

“Additional warming will push ocean temperature beyond conditions that organisms have not experienced since geological time periods in this region,” said co-author Gabriel Reygondeau, Nereus Fellow at the University of British Columbia. “Since no organisms living in the ocean today would have time to adapt to these warmer conditions, many will either go extinct or migrate away from the western Pacific, leaving this area with much lower biodiversity.”

Pacific islanders depend heavily on marine species for food, to fuel their economy, and to perpetuate their cultural heritage.

Co-author William Cheung says these changes in the ocean are not inevitable.

“One hopeful point is that the extent of these changes in biodiversity and fisheries was dramatically reduced under a climate change scenario where greenhouse gas emissions were close to what would be needed for achieving the Paris Climate Agreement,” Cheung said.