See https://oceanparcels.org/utrechtteam for the group page with full list of research projects
Troubling images, showcasing the large amount of plastic litter that contaminates our waters and threatens wildlife, have become a regular focus of the popular media. Not everyone realizes that we cannot account for a very large fraction of the plastic that escapes into the ocean. A significant portion of this “missing plastic” is hypothesized to result from the degradation of plastics and are named nanoplastics. A multidisciplinary team will now use a breakthrough approach to investigate the formation, presence, and distribution of nanoplastics in aquatic environments. We will study size, structure, and composition of nanoplastics, their transport across the ocean, as well as their interplay with and impact on the Earth’s aquatic microbiome. The reactivity of nanoplastics will also be assessed, allowing to investigate potential degradation pathways, including those involving microbial interactions.
Ocean currents transport plastic around the globe. However, plastic concentrations vary by orders of magnitude within mere kilometers. It is unclear why the distribution of oceanic plastic is so heterogeneous. The aim of this project is to unravel the oceanographic transport, fragmentation and beaching processes underlying this spatiotemporal heterogeneity of macroplastic particles and to predict the accumulation of macroplastic on the sea surface and on coastlines of Northwest Europe.
Macroplastics (>5cm) have significantly different properties than the more studied microplastics. This project will be the first to integrate all relevant physical oceanic processes that act on macroplastics – from small-scale surface waves to large-scale currents – into one mechanistic framework, which will be offered to the community as open-source toolbox.
Recent computational advances will allow my team and me to simulate these processes on scales from centimeters to thousands of kilometers, and for the first time also include the fragmentation of macroplastics due to biological, physical, and chemical weathering.
We will validate these simulations by tracking novel open-hardware drifters that represent floating macroplastics. By combining simulations and observations, we will create a tool to predict plastic hotspot emergence at sub-kilometer resolution.
These innovations will allow us to identify under which conditions the different processes are important for the transport, fragmentation, and beaching of macroplastic items; and use that information to predict when and where macroplastic accumulates to optimize clean-up strategies.
The plastic polluting our ocean is atrocious, and this project will provide practitioners with a tool of unprecedented accuracy to guide cleanup-efforts. At the same time, tracing the floating plastic is a unique opportunity to improve our fundamental understanding of ocean transport processes. This Vici project thus helps to combat an environmental problem while advancing scientific knowledge.
The EU-funded AtlantECO project aims to develop and apply a novel, unifying framework that provides knowledge-based resources for a better understanding and management of the Atlantic Ocean and its ecosystem services.
AtlantECO engages with citizens and actors from the industry and policy sectors in order to stimulate responsible behaviour and Blue Growth.
The project focuses on three pillars of research: microbiomes, plastic and the plastisphere, and seascape connectivity.
In pursuit of this goal, AtlantECO is bringing together experts and pioneers from Europe, South America and South Africa with the relevant resources, knowledge and experience.
The amount of plastic in our ocean is exponentially growing, with recent estimates of more than 5 million metric tonnes of plastic reaching the ocean each year. This plastic infiltrates the ocean food chain and thus poses a major threat to marine life. However, understanding of plastic movement and its budget in the ocean is inadequate to fully establish its environmental impact, prompting the EU and G7 to recently make marine litter a top science priority.
It is now recognised that the amount of plastic entering our ocean is several orders of magnitude larger than the estimates of floating plastic on the surface of the ocean. More than 99% of plastic within our ocean is therefore 'missing'. This project will make breakthroughs towards closing the plastic budget by creating a novel comprehensive modelling framework that tracks plastic movement through the ocean. Building on well-established previous work to follow generic water parcels through hydrodynamic ocean models, this project will modify these 'virtual' parcels to represent pieces of plastic by, for the first time, simulating fragmentation, sinking, beaching, wave-mixing and ingestion by biota.
The new parameterisations that underpin this modelling will be based on field data and new coastal flume wave tank lab experiments. The simulated plastic particles will be tracked within state-of-the-art hydrodynamic ocean models, in order to compute maps of pathways and transports around our oceans and on coastlines and in biota. This numerical modelling will be used to evaluate a broad suite of scenarios and test hypotheses, including where the risk to marine biota is greatest.
The results from this project will inform policymakers and the public on which countries, for example, are responsible for which part of the plastic problem, crucial for mitigation and legal frameworks. It will also inform engineers on where and how to best invest resources in mitigating the problem of plastic in our ocean.