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Wait, How Much Microplastic Is Swirling in the Atlantic?

Nature Communications
the National Oceanography Centre
the Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Condé Nast
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Matt SimonTo
Katsiaryna Pabortsava
Jennifer Brandon
Richard Lampitt

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the Atlantic Ocean
Monterey Bay

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the United Kingdom
the Falkland Islands

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The New York Times
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That means the total microplastic count in the Atlantic is likely to be far higher.“This is one of the messages of the paper, because we only looked at three polymers within a very limited sized range, and within just 6 percent of the Atlantic Ocean,” says Katsiaryna Pabortsava, an oceanographer at the National Oceanography Centre and a coauthor on the paper. It's just one of the many ways that plastic enters the world's oceans.This new research concludes that the top 200 meters of the Atlantic Ocean are positively packed with microplastics, with serious implications for the rest of the water column. So one group of researchers might be counting smaller particles than another, giving them different quantifications of microplastics in a given part of the sea.“The reason we previously were not able to account for about 99 percent of what we have been putting in,” says Pabortsava, “is either because we haven't been collecting the right size of particles in the surface ocean, or because it actually fragments and is transported down below the surface as a result.”By scaling up their counts of microplastics across those dozen sample sites, Pabortsava says they can account for all that missing plastic, and even revise that figure upwards. “Their overall points about smaller microplastics being incredibly abundant and undersampled are correct, and I would not be surprised if most plastics are in the top 200 meters of the ocean, based on the buoyancies of most consumer plastics,” she writes.It’s also worth noting that Lampitt and Pabortsava were only counting microplastics—chunks and shards of plastic bags and bottles—not microfibers. By one estimate, a city the size of Toronto flushes hundreds of billions of microfibers into the ocean each year.So this research at the very least snaps in place a missing piece of the microplastic cycle puzzle: A whole lot of particles are swirling in the Atlantic, and scientists have already shown that to be the case in the Pacific as well: California’s Monterey Bay—a famous conservation success story—is loaded with the stuff.

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