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Citizen scientists tackle an ocean-sized problem

Marine debris from below, near Hawaii, US. Image courtesy US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Areas of marine debris concentration, ‘garbage patches,’ float in the eastern and western areas of the North Pacific Ocean, and directly impact marine life and coastal seabirds. The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a citizen science project at the University of Washington, in Seattle, US, is now engaging coastal communities as scientific partners in monitoring coastal marine debris.

Depending on the participatory research of community and citizen scientists, COASST, funded by the US National Science Foundation, initially focused on collecting data on beached seabird carcasses as an indicator of coastal health. The team now turns its attention to one variable responsible, in part, for a portion of those deaths — ocean debris.

No amount of ocean debris is beneficial for aquatic or coastal life, but many incorrectly estimate the size of a garbage patch. “Even large docks that began floating out to sea after the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami are tiny compared to the enormity of the North Pacific Ocean,” stresses COASST executive director Julia Parrish.

Equatorial and coastal ocean currents, notes Parrish, travel faster than those in the center of a particular region, which can result in well-defined fields of ‘trapped’ ocean debris. “Debris may hang out in the center for months or even years,” she says. Much of the debris found in the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ consists of microplastics and small plastic pieces suspended throughout the water column, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Global ocean current flows, colored by corresponding sea surface temperature. The simulation uses MITgcm (MIT general circulation model) to synthesize satellite and in-situ data of the global ocean and sea-ice at resolutions that reveal ocean eddies and other narrow current systems. Visualization by Greg Shirah. Video courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Parrish explains that seasonally, large swaths “hundreds of kilometers wide will break free from the garbage patch and slam into the coast.” This happens mostly during the fall and winter months when ocean surface water tends to move toward the northwestern US coastline, while in summer and early fall ocean surface water moves in the opposite direction, resulting in lesser coastal debris concentrations.

Similar to the migratory patterns of birds, “there is a seasonal pattern to debris,” says Parrish, “and we want to be able to document it.” Parrish is interested less in the debris’ past uses, but rather its longevity and makeup. “We’re still finding glass fishing floats that haven’t been used in fisheries for decades.”

COASST will rely on citizen scientists to actively monitor more than 350 beaches from northern California to Alaska for beached marine debris. The community will capture debris characteristics like size, color, material makeup, geometry, and density — all revealing details about harm to wildlife.

Parrish notes that, once those details are captured, scientists will be able to map the entire coastline and predict which sections of coastline and what seasonal timeframes will be harmful to particular organisms. While no ocean debris is ‘good’ debris, the details it will help reveal — with help from the COASST citizen science community — will directly impact future coastal resource management and the health of marine and coastal life.

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