Assessing the Plastic-Carbon Concentrations at the Ocean’s Surface


MES/COS/CEE Associate Professor Aron Stubbins is leading a $300K NSF EAGER grant, in collaboration with Jason Guo from the Barnett Institute, Kara Lavender Law from the Sea Education Association, and Valier Galy from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, for “Assessing the contribution of plastics to marine particulate organic carbon.”

Abstract Source: NSF

Like life and the natural organic material life leaves behind, plastics are carbon-based. In use, plastics remain a wonder material, facilitating technological advancement. However, once discarded, their durability allows plastics to accumulate. One place that plastics are accumulating is at the surface of the open ocean. This project will collect samples from the open ocean and measure both natural organic carbon and plastic-carbon concentrations. The team hypothesize that in some places at the surface ocean there will be as much or even more plastic-carbon than natural organic carbon. If the team are correct, this will change how they and other ocean scientists interpret the carbon signatures observed in ocean samples and indicate our surface oceans have been fundamentally changed by plastic pollution.

Plastics are carbon-based polymers and an emergent component of the carbon-cycle. Data for plastics and organic carbon at sea are collected by different scientific communities, using different methods. Comparing data from these two communities suggests plastic-carbon may now rival concentrations of biogenic OC at the surface of the ocean. In this EArly-concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) project, the team will conduct an interdisciplinary study combining analysis of plastic-carbon and organic carbon for the same samples. Doing so in the Atlantic Ocean at BATS/Hydrostation ā€œSā€ will test the hypothesis that plastic-carbon is now a significant fraction of total organic carbon at the sea surface. The project will deliver new methods for plastic-carbon analysis, including for nanoplastics down to 0.2 microns in size, and reveal whether ocean scientists now need to consider the role of plastic-carbon as an analyte in their samples and as an active component of the biogeochemistry and ecology of the surface ocean.

This award reflects NSF’s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation’s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Related Faculty: Aron Stubbins

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering