Scientists from the University of Michigan have devised an innovative way to use data from one of NASA’s satellite systems to track the movement of ocean microplastics from space.
Microplastics, which form when plastic trash that flows into the ocean breaks down into minuscule flecks of plastic, are extremely harmful to the marine ecosystem and threaten the survival of several organisms.
Ocean currents carry such tiny plastic particles thousands of miles away from the source, making it difficult for environmentalists to track and remove them. The primary source of information about microplastics currently is fishing boats and trawlers that unintentionally catch microplastics.
The new technique that scientists from Michigan University are using relies on data obtained from NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) – a cluster of eight small satellites that measure wind speed above oceans to provide information about hurricanes. It also uses radar to measure the roughness of ocean currents, which depend on various factors such as wind speed and floating debris.
According to a NASA report, the team of researchers studied CYGNSS data to look for places where the ocean was unusually smooth vis-à-vis the wind speed, based on the assumption that the presence of microplastics can dictate the roughness of ocean current.
They then compared data from those areas against model predictions of areas where microplastics gather in the ocean and found that tiny plastic particles were almost always present in smoother waters. This proved that CYGNSS data can be used to track microplastic presence in oceans from space.The results of the scientific study were published earlier this month in IEEE Transactions of Geoscience and Remote Sensing.