Seafloor currents sweep microplastics into deep-sea hotspots of ocean life



A rockfish hides in a red tree coral in the deep sea.
Geofflos

Ian Kane, University of Manchester and Michael Clare, National Oceanography Centre

What if the “great ocean garbage patches” were just the tip of the iceberg? While more than ten million tonnes of plastic waste enters the sea each year, we actually see just 1% of it – the portion that floats on the ocean surface. What happens to the missing 99% has been unclear for a while.

Plastic debris is gradually broken down into smaller and smaller fragments in the ocean, until it forms particles smaller than 5mm, known as microplastics. Our new research shows that powerful currents sweep these microplastics along the seafloor into large “drifts”, which concentrate them in astounding quantities. We found up to 1.9 million pieces of microplastic in a 5cm-thick layer covering just one square metre – the highest levels of microplastics yet recorded on the ocean floor.

While microplastics have been found on the seafloor worldwide, scientists weren’t sure how they got there and how they spread. We thought that microplastics would separate out according to how big or dense they were, in a similar manner to natural sediment. But plastics are different – some float, but more than half of them sink.




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Plastics which once floated can sink as they become coated in algae, or if bound up with other sticky minerals and organic matter. Recent research has shown that rivers transport microplastics to the ocean too, and laboratory experiments revealed that giant underwater avalanches of sediment can transport these tiny particles along deep-sea canyons to greater depths.

We’ve now discovered how a global network of deep-sea currents transports microplastics, creating plastic hotspots within vast sediment drifts. By catching a ride on these currents, microplastics may be accumulating where deep-sea life is abundant.

Once plastic debris has broken down and sinks to the ocean floor, currents sweep the particles into vast drifts.
Ian Kane, Author provided

From bedroom floors to the seafloor

We surveyed an area of the Mediterranean off the western coast of Italy, known as the Tyrrhenian Sea, and studied the bottom currents that flow near the seafloor. These currents are driven by differences in water salinity and temperature as part of a system of ocean circulation that spans the globe. Seafloor drifts of sediment can be many kilometres across and hundreds of metres high, forming where these currents lose their strength.

We analysed sediment samples from the seafloor taken at depths of several hundred metres. To avoid disturbing the surface layer of sediment, we used samples taken with box-cores, which are like big cookie cutters. In the laboratory, we separated microplastics from the sediment and counted them under microscopes, analysing them using infra-red spectroscopy to find out what kinds of plastic polymer types were there.

A microplastic fibre seen under a microscope.
Ian Kane, Author provided

Most microplastics found on the seafloor are fibres from clothes and textiles. These are particularly insidious, as they can be eaten and absorbed by organisms. Although microplastics on their own are often non-toxic, studies show the build-up of toxins on their surfaces can harm organisms if ingested.

These deep ocean currents also carry oxygenated water and nutrients, meaning that the seafloor hotspots where microplastics accumulate may also be home to important ecosystems such as deep-sea coral reefs that have evolved to depend on these flows, but are now receiving huge quantities of microplastics instead.

What was once a hidden problem has now been uncovered – natural currents and the flow of plastic waste into the ocean are turning parts of the seafloor into repositories for microplastics. The cheap plastic goods we take for granted eventually end up somewhere. The clothes that may only last weeks in your wardrobe linger for decades to centuries on the seafloor, potentially harming the unique and poorly understood creatures that live there.The Conversation

Ian Kane, Reader in Geology, University of Manchester and Michael Clare, Principal Researcher in Marine Geoscience, National Oceanography Centre

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A current affair: the movement of ocean waters around Australia



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Where do the ocean waters that wash the Gold Coast come from?
Flickr/LJ Mears , CC BY-NC-SA

Charitha Pattiaratchi, University of Western Australia; Ems Wijeratne, University of Western Australia, and Roger Proctor, University of Tasmania

Many people in Australia will head to the beach this summer and that’ll most likely include a dip or a plunge into the sea. But have you ever wondered where those ocean waters come from, and what influence they may have?

Australia is surrounded by ocean currents that have a strong controlling influence on things such as climate, ecosystems, fish migrations, the transport of ocean debris and on water quality.

We did a study, published in April 2018, that helps to give us a better understanding of those ocean currents.

Surface currents around the Australian continent.
Ems Wijeratne/Charitha Pattiaratchi/Roger Proctor



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Go with the flow: Indian Ocean

Our 15 year simulation indicates that water from the Pacific Ocean enters the Indonesian Archipelago through the Mindanao current (north) and Halmahera Sea (south).

It then enters the Indian ocean as the Indonesian Throughflow between many Indonesian Islands, with flow through the Timor Passage being the most dominant.

Most of this water flows west as the South Equatorial Current. Re-circulation of the SEC creates the Eastern Gyre that contributes to the Holloway Current. This in turn feeds the Leeuwin Current – the longest boundary current in the world (Ocean currents that flow adjacent to a coastline are called boundary currents)

The Leeuwin Current is the major boundary current along the west coast and as it moves southward. Indian Ocean water is supplied by the South Indian Counter Current increasing the Leeuwin Current transport by 60%.

The Leeuwin Current turns east at Cape Leeuwin, in Western Australia’s south-west, and continues to Tasmania as the South Australian and Zeehan Currents.

The Leeuwin Current passes the lighthouse at the Cape Leeuwin in WA.
Flickr/Cheng, CC BY-NC-ND

There is a strong seasonal variation in the strength of the boundary currents in the Indian Ocean with a progression southwards of the peak transport along the coast.

The Holloway Current peaks in April/May (coinciding with changes in the monsoon winds), the Leeuwin Current reaches a maximum along the west and south coasts in June and August.




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Go with the flow: Pacific Ocean

In the Pacific Ocean, the northern branches of the South Equatorial Current are the main inputs initiating the Hiri Current and East Australian Current.

At around latitude 15 degrees south the currents split in two: southward to form the East Australian Current, and northward to form the Hiri Current which contributes to a clockwise gyre in the Gulf of Papua.

The East Australian Current is the dominant current in the region transporting 33 million cubic metres of water per second southward.

At around 32S, the East Australian Current separates from the coast and 60% of the water flows eastward to New Zealand as the Tasman Front. The remaining 40% flows southward as the East Australian Current extension and contributes to the Tasman Outflow.

The Tasman outflow is the major conduit of water from the Pacific to Indian Ocean and contributes to the Flinders Current, flowing westward from Tasmania and past Cape Leeuwin into the Indian Ocean.

Along the southern continental slope, the Flinders Current appears as an undercurrent beneath the Leeuwin Current and a surface current further offshore. The Flinders Current contributes to the Leeuwin Undercurrent directly as a northward flow, flowing to the north-west of Australia in water depths 300 metres to 800 metres.

Impact of the currents

Understanding ocean circulation is a fundamental tenet of physical oceanography and scientists have been charting the pathways of ocean currents since the American hydrographer Matthew Maury, one of the founders of oceanography, who first charted the Gulf Stream in 1855.

One of the first maps of circulation around Australia was by Halliday (1921) who showed the movement of “warm” and “cold” waters around Australia. Although some of the major features (such as the East Australian Current) were correctly identified, a more fine scale description is now available.

Ocean surface currents around Australia by Halliday 1921.

The unique feature of ocean currents around Australia is that along both east and west coasts they transport warmer water southwards and influence the local climate, particularly air temperature and rainfall, as well as species distribution.




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For example, the south west of Australia is up to 5C warmer in winter and receives more than double the rainfall compared to regions located on similar latitudes along western coastlines of other continents.

Similarly many tropical species of fish are found in the southwest of Australia that hitch a ride on the ocean currents.

The Pacific Ocean is the origin of waters around Australia with a direct link to the east and an indirect link to west.

Ocean water from the Pacific Ocean flows through the Indonesian Archipelago, a region subject to high solar heating and rainfall runoff, creating lower density water. This water, augmented by water from the Indian Ocean, flows around the western and southern coasts, converging along the southern coast of Tasmania.

So next time you head for a dip in the coastal waters around Australian, spare a thought for where that water has come from and where it may be going next.The Conversation

Time for a plunge in the water at Bondi Beach, NSW.
Flickr/Roderick Eime, CC BY-ND

Charitha Pattiaratchi, Professor of Coastal Oceanography, University of Western Australia; Ems Wijeratne, Assistant Professor, UWA Oceans Institute, University of Western Australia, and Roger Proctor, Director, Australian Ocean Data Network, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate change is slowing Atlantic currents that help keep Europe warm



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Natalie Renier/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Author provided

Peter T. Spooner, UCL

The ocean currents that help warm the Atlantic coasts of Europe and North America have significantly slowed since the 1800s and are at their weakest in 1600 years, according to new research my colleagues and I have conducted. As we’ve set out in a new study in Nature, the weakening of this ocean circulation system may have begun naturally but is probably being continued by climate change related to greenhouse gas emissions.

This circulation is a key player in the Earth’s climate system and a large or abrupt slowdown could have global repercussions. It could cause sea levels on the US east coast to rise, alter European weather patterns or rain patterns more globally, and hurt marine wildlife.

We know that at the end of the last major ice age, rapid fluctuations in the circulation led to extreme climate shifts on a global scale. An exaggerated (but terrifying) example of such a sudden event was portrayed in the 2004 blockbuster film The Day After Tomorrow.

The recent weakening we have found was likely driven by warming in the north Atlantic and the addition of freshwater from increased rainfall and melting ice. It has been predicted many times but, until now, just how much weakening has already occurred has largely remained a mystery. The extent of the changes we have discovered comes as a surprise to many, including myself, and points to significant changes in the future.

The circulation system in question is known as the “Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation” (AMOC). The AMOC is like a giant conveyor belt of water. It transports warm, salty water to the north Atlantic where it gets very cold and sinks. Once in the deep ocean the water flows back southwards and then all around the world’s oceans. This conveyor belt is one of the most important transporters of heat in the climate system and includes the Gulf Stream, known for keeping western Europe warm.

Climate models have consistently predicted that the AMOC will slow down due to greenhouse gas warming and associated changes in the water cycle. Because of these predictions – and the possibility of abrupt climate changes – scientists have monitored the AMOC since 2004 with instruments strung out across the Atlantic at key locations. But to really test the model predictions and work out how climate change is affecting the conveyor we have needed much longer records.

Looking for patterns

To create these records, our research group – led by University College London’s Dr David Thornalley – used the idea that a change in the AMOC has a unique pattern of impact on the ocean. When the AMOC gets weaker, the north-eastern Atlantic Ocean cools and parts of the western Atlantic get warmer by a specific amount. We can look for this pattern in past records of ocean temperature to trace what the circulation was like in the past.

Another study in the same issue of Nature, led by researchers at the University of Potsdam in Germany, used historical observations of temperature to check the fingerprint. They found that the AMOC had reduced in strength by around 15% since 1950, pointing to the role of human-made greenhouse gas emissions as the primary cause.

In our paper, which also forms part of the EU ATLAS project, we found the same fingerprint. But instead of using historical observations we used our expertise in past climate research to go back much further in time. We did this by combining known records of the remains of tiny marine creatures found in deep-sea mud. Temperature can be worked out by looking at the amounts of different species and the chemical compositions of their skeletons.

We were also able to directly measure the past deep ocean current speeds by looking at the mud itself. Larger grains of mud imply faster currents, while smaller grains mean the currents were weaker. Both techniques point to a weakening of the AMOC since about 1850, again by about 15% to 20%. Importantly, the modern weakening is very different to anything seen over the last 1,600 years, pointing to a combination of natural and human drivers.

The difference in timing of the start of the AMOC weakening in the two studies will require more scientific attention. Despite this difference, both of the new studies raise important questions regarding whether climate models simulate the historical changes in ocean circulation, and whether we need to revisit some of our future projections.

The ConversationHowever, each additional long record makes it easier to evaluate how well the models simulate this key element of the climate system. In fact, evaluating models against these long records may be a crucial step if we hope to accurately predict possible extreme AMOC events and their climate impacts.

Peter T. Spooner, Research Associate in Paleoceanography, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.