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Research indicates more plastic may be in ocean than previous estimates

Courtesy of NOAA photo library

Over 19 billion pounds of trash is dumped in the ocean every year, according to a study published in the premier journal Science last year. And much of that is plastic.

Recently, a new paper from the University of Delaware suggests that this number is actually a conservative estimate and we may be putting more plastic in our oceans than we thought.

One way oceanographers have approached it is by taking a big net and dragging it for a few miles over one of the Earth’s five largest ocean gyres. Then, they count how many plastic fragments they find and come up with a number.

But new research says that scientists should take ocean turbulence into account. Turbulence in the ocean is generated by wind and waves, kind of like what happens when you stir cream into a cup of coffee.

Researchers at UD, University of Washington and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution used computer modeling that shows that this force can mix contents from the surface further down the water column.

The amount of stuff that travels below also depends on the season. Warmer temperatures in the summer heat up the surface layer and trap its contents there. But when things are colder, some plastic contents will sink below the surface.  

Knowing this, scientists say they should be doing a little more than skimming the surface, especially when it comes at a great cost to the many creatures that call the ocean home.


The study appears in the Journal of Physical Oceanography and is co-authored by University of Delaware professor Tobias Kukulka.

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