Ocean Plastics and Marine Pollution
Marine pollution has been a focus of SEA Semester student research since the early 1980s. Tar balls and plastic particles have been collected and counted in routine, twice-daily surface plankton net tows, resulting in long-term records of contamination in the North Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and North and South Pacific Oceans. During this time, the occurrence of floating tar balls has substantially declined, in contrast to floating plastic debris, which continues to persist. Ocean plastics are the focus of multiple avenues of research by SEA faculty and SEA Semester students to better understand their sources, distribution, transport, and fate in the ocean.
Moving beyond scientific study, SEA is dedicated to communicating environmental issues and sustainability strategies to broad audiences as well as inspiring community members of all ages to actions supporting marine conservation. Through policy classes, many semesters of SEA students contributed to the Trash Shouldn’t Splash toolkit development, which aims to reduce single-use (disposable) plastics.
SEA has conducted two research expeditions, crewed by volunteer SEA alumni, dedicated to the study of plastic marine debris. For each expedition a website documented the daily activities onboard the ship, sharing the scientific findings and teaching readers about the subject of marine debris:
Plastics at SEA: North Atlantic Expedition 2010
Plastics at SEA: North Pacific Expedition 2012
Microplastic abundance and distribution
Most plastic debris collected in our surface-towing plankton nets can be classified as microplastics (smaller than 5 mm in size), whether easily-identifiable industrial resin pellets, the “raw material” of plastic products, or particles derived from the breakdown of larger items. Microplastic measurements from more than 12,000 plankton net tows have been used to map the distribution of this floating contaminant, which is transported by large-scale ocean currents into accumulation zones in the subtropical gyres of the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and other basins. SEA’s decades-long time series also allow for investigation into potential increases in floating plastic abundance in response to increased plastic input into the ocean over time.
SEA faculty and collaborators: Kara Lavender Law (SEA), Jessica Donohue (SEA), Christopher Reddy (WHOI), Giora Proskurowski (MarqMetrix), Nikolai Maximenko (University of Hawaii)
Selected Microplastic abundance and distribution papers and publications
Plastic degradation in seawater
Plastics are synthetic polymers designed for strength and durability. As such, they are very resistant to degradation in the environment. Weakened by exposure to ultraviolet radiation, plastics fragment into smaller and smaller pieces. How small these pieces become, and how long they remain plastics before being fully degraded by microbial action, are open questions. Using the decades-long archives of floating debris collected by SEA Semester students in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, SEA researchers investigate the physical and chemical signatures of degradation, with complementary laboratory and field exposure experiments designed to determine the time scales of these weathering signatures.
SEA faculty and collaborators: Kara Lavender Law (SEA), Jessica Donohue (SEA), Giora Proskurowski (MarqMetrix), Anthony Andrady (North Carolina State University/Helix Science)
Selected Plastic degradation in seawater papers and publications
Vertical mixing of floating microplastics
Microplastics at the sea surface float because they are less dense than seawater, but energy from the wind creates turbulence that can mix these buoyant pieces tens of meters deep, out of reach of surface plankton nets used to collect them. SEA scientists assess the physical properties of marine debris and use an experimental setup to measure how fast particles rise back to the surface. Together with the physics of ocean turbulence, this data informs models that predict how much plastic is mixed below the sea surface under different wind and weather conditions.
SEA faculty and collaborators: Kara Lavender Law (SEA), Jessica Donohue (SEA), Giora Proskurowski (MarqMetrix), Tobias Kukulka (University of Delaware)
Video courtesy of Tobias Kukulka
Selected Vertical mixing of floating microplastics papers and publications
Floating tar balls result from weathering of both naturally occurring and maritime industry-sourced oil slicks. Coincident with implementation of international regulations to ban oil discharge from ships, surface plankton net tow sampling conducted by SEA in the Sargasso Sea documents a decline in frequency of tar balls from 1977 to 2012. Today, it is quite rare to encounter tar in our nets. The chemical composition of SEA’s archived tar samples has been examined to identify geographic patterns in source oil type.
SEA faculty and collaborators: Andrew Peters (Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences), Christopher Reddy (WHOI)
Selected Tar pollution papers and publications
Ingestion of marine debris has been documented in more than 300 species of marine animals ranging from invertebrates to fish and from seabirds to marine mammals. The impacts of microplastic ingestion are an area of active research – there is concern not only about the effects on individual animals, but also the possibility that microplastics, or the chemical contaminants associated with them, might be passed up the food web. Past SEA experiments considered selective grazing of microplastics with and without chemical contaminants by a common species of zooplankton near the base of the food web.
SEA faculty and collaborators: Kara Lavender Law (SEA), Anthony Andrady (North Carolina State University/Helix Science), Amy Siuda (Eckerd College)
Selected Microplastic ingestion papers and publications
The “Plastisphere”: Microbial communities on plastic debris
Plastic debris is rapidly colonized by diverse microbial communities referred to as the “Plastisphere,” which are distinct from microbial communities in surrounding seawater. This relatively new, anthropogenic substrate develops a biofilm of microbes including phototrophs, heterotrophs, potential pathogens, predators and symbionts that may influence marine food webs and biogeochemical cycling. Past SEA investigations into Plastisphere community structure and function on plastic fragments included the help of SEA Semester students.
Selected The "Plastisphere": Microbial Communities on Plastic Debris papers and publications
Wilcox, C., B. D. Hardesty, K. L. Law*, 2019. Abundance of floating plastic particles is increasing in the western North Atlantic Ocean. Environ. Sci. Technol. 54, 790-796. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.9b04812
Maximenko, N., P. Corradi, K. L. Law*, E. van Sebille, S. Garaba, R. S. Lampitt, F. Galgani, V. Martinez-Vicente, et al. (62 authors), 2019. Toward the integrated marine debris observing system. Front. Mar. Sci. 6, 447. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2019.00447
Pieper, C., L. Amaral-Zettler, K. L. Law*, C. Loureiro and A. Martins, 2019. Application of matrix scoring techniques to evaluate marine debris sources in the remote islands of the Azores Archipelago. Env. Poll. 249, 666-675. doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2019.03.084
Green, H., S. Fuller*, A. Meyer*, P. Joyce*, C. Aeppli, R. Nelson, R. Swarthout, D. Valentine, H. White and C. Reddy, 2018. Pelagic tar balls collected in the North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea from 1988 to 2016 have natural and anthropogenic origins. Mar. Poll. Bull. 137, 352-259. doi: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2018.10.030
Koelmans, A., M. Kooi, K. L. Law*, and E. van Sebille, 2017. All is not lost: Deriving a top-down mass budget of plastic at sea. Env. Res. Lett. 12, 114028. doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/aa9500
Geyer, R., J. Jambeck and K.L. Law*, 2017. Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances 3, e1700782. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1700782
Pfaller, J. and M. Gil^, 2016. Sea turtle symbiosis facilitates social monogamy in oceanic crabs via refuge size. Biol. Lett. 12, 20160607. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2016.0607
Kukulka, T., K. L. Law* and G. Proskurowski, 2016. Evidence for the influence of surface heat fluxes on turbulent mixing of microplastic marine debris. J. Phys. Ocean. 46, 809-815. doi: 10.1175/JPO-D-15-0242.1
Gil, M.^ and J. Pfaller, 2016. Oceanic barnacles act as foundation species on plastic debris: implications for marine dispersal. Sci. Rep. 6, 19987. doi: 10.1038/srep19987
Van Sebille, E., C. Wilcox, L. Lebreton, N. Maximenko, B. Hardesty, J. van Franeker, M. Eriksen, D. Siegel, F. Galgani and K. L. Law*, 2015. A global inventory of small floating plastic debris. Env. Res. Lett. 10, 124006. doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/10/12/124006
Amaral-Zettler, L., E. Zettler*, B. Slikas, G. Boyd, D. Melvin^, C. Morrall, G. Proskurowski and T. Mincer, 2015. The biogeography of the 'Plastisphere:' implications for policy. Front. Ecol. Environ. 13, doi: 10.1890/150017
Brunner, K., T. Kukulka, G. Proskurowski and K. L. Law*, 2015. Passive buoyant tracers in the ocean surface boundary layer: 2. Observations and simulations of microplastic marine debris. J. Geophys. Res.-Oceans 120, 7559-7573. doi: 10.1002/2015JC010840
Van Franeker, J. and K. L. Law*, 2015. Seabirds, gyres and global trends in plastic pollution. Environ. Poll. 203, 89-96. doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2015.02.034
Jambeck, J., R. Geyer, C. Wilcox, T. Siegler, M. Perryman, A. Andrady, R. Narayan, and K. L. Law*, 2015. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science 347, 768-771. doi: 10.1126/science.1260352
Law, K. L.*, S. Moret-Ferguson^, D. Goodwin*, E. Zettler*, E. DeForce, T. Kukulka, and G. Proskurowski, 2014. Distribution of surface plastic debris in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean from an 11-year data set. Env. Sci. Technol. 48, 4732-4738. doi: 10.1021/es4053076
Peters, A. and A. Siuda*, 2014. A review of observations of floating tar in the Sargasso Sea. Oceanography 27, 217-221. doi: 10.5670/oceanog.2014.25
Goldstein M. and D. Goodwin*, 2013. Gooseneck barnacles (Lepas spp.) ingest microplastic debris in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. PeerJ doi: 10.7717/peerj.184
Zettler, E.*, T. Mincer and L. Amaral-Zettler, 2013. Life in the 'Plastisphere': microbial communities on plastic marine debris. Env. Sci. Technol. 47, 7137-7146. doi: 10.1021/es401288x
Kukulka, T., G. Proskurowski, S. Moret-Ferguson^, D. Meyer^ and K. L. Law*, 2012. The effects of wind mixing on the vertical distribution of buoyant plastic debris. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L07601. doi: 10.1029/2012GL051116
Hirai H., H. Takada, Y. Ogata, R. Yamashita, K. Mizukawa, M. Saha, C. Kwan, C. Moore, H. Gray, D. Laursen, E. Zettler*, J. Farrington, C. Reddy, E. Peacock and M. Ward, 2011. Organic micropollutants in marine plastics debris from the open ocean and remote and urban beaches. Mar. Poll. Bull. 62, 1683-1692. doi: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2011.06.004
Moret-Ferguson, S.^, K. L. Law*, G. Proskurowski*, E. Murphy, E. Peacock and C. Reddy, 2010. The size, mass, and composition of plastic debris in the western North Atlantic Ocean. Mar. Poll. Bull. 60, 1873-1878. doi: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2010.07.020
Law, K. L.*, S. Moret-Ferguson^, N. Maximenko, G. Proskurowski*, E. Peacock, J. Hafner and C. Reddy, 2010. Plastic accumulation in the North Atlantic subtropical gyre. Science 329, 1185-1188. doi: 10.1126/science.1192321
Selected student research
Croucher, T., 2018. Concentrations of microplastics in correlation to the proximity of coral reefs in the South Pacific. Unpublished student research paper, Class S-280, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.
Meunier, E., S. Silberman and R. Schreiber, 2017. Ratio of microplastics to phytoplankton in the South Pacific. Unpublished student research paper, Class S-276, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.
Rozen, J. and C. Coulouvatos, 2017. Plastic in the western North Atlantic. Unpublished student research paper, Class C-275, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.
Killian, S., 2017. Plastic ingestion by mesopelagic fish: spatial distribution and comparison to models of plastic convergence in the South Pacific subtropical gyre. Unpublished student research paper, Class S-273, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.
Findlay, K. and W. Harnisch, 2016. Micro- and microplastic concentrations and distributions in the South Pacific. Unpublished student research paper, Class S-270, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.
Randall, Y., 2016. Size and form of plastics in the western Mediterranean and eastern North Atlantic Ocean. Unpublished student research paper, Class C-269, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.
Taylor, S., 2014. Vibrio in the Mediterranean Sea and northeast Atlantic: Strains in the open ocean and on plastic debris. Unpublished student research paper, Class C-255, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.
Swinford, J. and E. White, 2013. Ingestion of plastics by myctophids in the North Pacific subtropical gyre. Unpublished student research paper, Class S-248, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.
Maloney, J. and D. Perry, 2012. Biofilm growth on macroplastic: Density and diversity of microbial communities on plastic in the North Pacific subtropical gyre. Unpublished student research paper, Class S-242, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.
Melvin, W., 2012. Investigation of plastic transporting E. coli in the western North Atlantic Ocean. Unpublished student research paper, Class C-240, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.
White, R. and M. Holleb, 2010. Abundance of plastics at varying levels in the water column as a result of differing wind speeds. Unpublished student research paper, Class C-231, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.
Trainor, M., 2009. The distribution of tar balls in the wider Caribbean region. Unpublished student research paper, Class C-222, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.
Gotfredson, T., 2007. The distribution of pelagic tar along an east-west transect of the Caribbean Sea. Unpublished student research paper, Class C-214, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.
Donohue, J.*, 2018. Overview of the global problem of plastic pollution in the marine environment. Southeast Regional Massachusetts Medical Society (invited speaker), Woods Hole, MA.
Donohue, J.*, 2018. Plastic pollution in the marine environment. Vineyard Conservation Society Annual Meeting (invited speaker), West Tisbury, MA.
Donohue, J.*, 2018. Global occurrence, sources, distribution and fate of plastic in the environment. Ocean Outlook Conference, Woods Hole, MA.
Law, K. L.*, 2018. Ocean plastics pollution from sources to solutions. Bren School (invited speaker). University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA.
Law, K. L.*, 2018. Ocean plastics pollution from sources to solutions. Woodin Environmental Studies Colloquium (invited speaker). Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT.
Donohue, J.*, K. L. Law*, E. Edson^ and K. Tremblay, 2018. Understanding wind-driven vertical mixing of microplastics. 6th International Marine Debris Conference, San Diego, CA.
Law, K. L.*, J. Donohue*, T. Collins^, K. Pavlekovsky^, J. McDowell^, A. Andrady and G. Proskurowski, 2018. Investigating physical and chemical degradation of plastics using open ocean microplastic samples and laboratory and field weathering experiments. 6th International Marine Debris Conference, San Diego, CA.
Wilcox, C., B. Hardesty, and K. L. Law*, 2018. Revisiting a long-term time series of floating plastics in the western North Atlantic. 6th International Marine Debris Conference, San Diego, CA.
Law, K. L.*, 2018. Transport and fate of marine debris in the ocean and shelf-seas: theory, modeling and observations (session chair and moderator). 6th International Marine Debris Conference, San Diego, CA.
Law, K. L.*, 2018. Ocean plastics pollution: a view towards the Arctic. Arctic Expert Meetings, Harvard Kennedy School, Cambridge, MA.
Law, K. L.*, 2018. Current state of scientific knowledge. 6th International Marine Debris Conference (plenary panel member), San Diego, CA.
Wilcox, C., B. Hardesty, and K. L. Law*, 2018. Revisiting a long-term time series of floating plastics in the western North Atlantic. Ocean Sciences Meeting, Portland, OR.
Law, K. L.*, 2018. Detection, analysis and modeling of the distribution and transport of oceanic debris (session chair and moderator). Ocean Sciences Meeting, Portland, OR.
Donohue, J.*, K. L. Law*, N. Bethoney and K. Stokesbury, 2018. Quantity of plastic debris on the seafloor offshore of the northeast United States. Ocean Sciences Meeting, Portland, OR.
Law, K. L.*, 2017. Plastics pollution in the marine environment. School for Marine Science and Technology, Department of Fisheries Oceanography seminar (invited speaker). University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Joyce, P.* and J. Donohue*, 2017. Plastics in the ocean: floating islands or invisible threat? Marine and Natural Science Seminar Series. Roger Williams University, Bristol, RI.
Law, K. L.*, 2017. A framework to advance the science of plastic marine debris. German Federal Institute of Hydrology Summer School on 'Plastics in Freshwater and Marine Environments' (invited speaker), Koblenz, Germany.
Law, K. L.*, 2018. A framework to study plastics pollution in the marine environment. The Second International Symposium on Marine Microplastic Pollution and Control (invited speaker), Shanghai, China.
Law, K.L*, 2017. A framework to advance the science of marine litter. G20 Workshop on Marine Litter (keynote speaker), Hamburg, Germany.
Donohue, J.*, 2017. Plastic pollution in the ccean. Cohasset Center for Student Coastal Research Lecture Series, Cohasett, MA.
Green, H., S. Fuller*, A. Meyer*, P. Joyce*, C. Aeppli, R. Nelson, K. Gosselin, R. Swarthout, H. White, D. Valentine, and C. Reddy, 2016. Tar balls collected in the North Atlantic over the past two decades vary substantially. AGU Fall Meeting, San Francisco, CA.
Donohue, J.*, J. McDowell^, K. Pavlekovsky^, T. Collins^, A. Andrady, G. Proskurowski and K. L. Law*, 2016. Polymer characterization and variability in composition of floating microplastics in the Caribbean Sea and North Atlantic. 69th Annual Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute Conference, Grand Cayman.
Law, K.L*, 2016. The global budget of floating microplastics in marine systems. German Water Chemistry Society Late Summer Workshop: Microplastics in the aquatic environment (keynote speaker). Haltern am See, Germany.
Law, K.L.*, J. Donohue*, T. Collins^, K. Pavlekovsky^, A. Andrady and G. Proskurowski, 2016. Using physical and chemical characteristics of floating microplastics to investigate their weathering history. MICRO Conference: Fate and Impact of Microplastics in Marine Ecosystems: From the Coastline to the Open Sea, Lanzarote, Spain.
Law, K.L.*, 2016. Plastics in the ocean: floating islands or invisible threat? Planet Ocean seminar series (invited speaker). University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington, NC.
Donohue, J.*, 2016. Bringing plastic marine debris into the classroom. Massachusetts Marine Educators 40th Annual Meeting, Woods Hole, MA.
Donohue, J.*, K. Pavlekovsky^, T. Collins^, A. Andrady, G. Proskurowski and K. L. Law*, 2016. Variability in the composition of floating microplastics by region and in time. Ocean Sciences Meeting, New Orleans, LA.
Taylor, S.^, K. Cramer, K. Dooley, K.^, W. Lourie^, T. Mincer, L. Amaral-Zettler and E. Zettler*, 2015. Short-term microbial community assembly on plastic marine debris: evidence from experimental colonization studies in the waters of Woods Hole, MA, USA. ASLO Aquatic Sciences Meeting, Granada, Spain.
Zettler, E.*, C. Morrall, G. Proskurowski, T. Mincer, and L. Amaral-Zettler, 2014. Microbial succession on plastic marine debris: development of the 'Plastisphere' community. Ocean Sciences Meeting, Honolulu, HI.
Mincer, T., V. Guzzetta, B. Slikas, E. Zettler*, and L. Amaral-Zettler, 2014. Investigation of microbial adherence and virulence factors associated with open-ocean derived plastic marine debris: Vibrio bacteria as a model system. Ocean Sciences Meeting, Honolulu, HI.
Amaral-Zettler, L., G. Boyd, B. Slikas, E. Zettler*, and T. Mincer, 2014. Comparative microbial community structure and biogeography of Atlantic and Pacific 'Plastisphere' communities. Ocean Sciences Meeting, Honolulu, HI.
Law, K. L.*, S. Moret-Ferguson^, E. Zettler*, E. DeForce, and G. Proskurowski, 2014. A synoptic look at eastern Pacific microplastic debris: 11 years of consistent monitoring. Ocean Sciences Meeting, Honolulu, HI.
Duarte, A.^, E. Zettler*, L. Amaral-Zettler, and T. Mincer, 2012. Analysis of plastics in the Sargasso Sea and Vibrio interactions with plastic. Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science Meeting, Seattle, WA.
GESAMP, 2015. Sources, fate and effects of microplastics in the marine environment: a global assessment. (Kershaw, P. J., ed.). (IMO/FAO/UNESCO-IOC/UNIDO/WMO/IAEA/UN/UNEP/UNDP Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection). Rep. Stud. GESAMP No. 90, 96 pp. (K. L. Law*, co-author)
Wilber*, R. J., 1987. Plastic in the North Atlantic. Oceanus 30, 61-68.
* SEA faculty and staff
^ SEA Semester alumnus
SEA’s Dr. Kara Lavender Law Delivers Keynote Address at Microplastics Conference
March 03, 2020
Sea Education Association in the NEWS
“Microplastics research needs innovation, health focus”
By Marla Broadfoot
National Institutue of Environmental Health Sciences
Experts from the environmental science and health communities met Jan. 27-28 in Washington, D.C., to discuss microplastics, the tiny pieces of plastic now being detected throughout the environment. The workshop was organized by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) and sponsored by NIEHS.
SEA Profile: Jessica Donohue, Solving the Puzzle of Plastics Pollution
November 19, 2019
Doug Karlson, Marketing & Communications Coordinator
Visitors to the Madden Center on SEA’s Woods Hole campus may have noticed an unusual 8-foot plexiglass tube, filled with synthetic saltwater, standing in the main stairwell. The tube is a rise velocity chamber, built by SEA volunteer Ethan Edson (C-247).
New Funding Will Expand & Share Research on Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution
October 29, 2019
Thanks to a generous grant from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, researchers are taking practical steps to help curb ocean plastics pollution by sharing scientific research where it will do the most good!
SEA’s Plastics Research Chronicled on WBUR (Boston NPR)
October 18, 2019
SEA Semester in the NEWS
WBUR (Boston NPR)
“Millions Of Tons Of Plastic Are Dumped In The Ocean Every Year. We Don’t Know Where Most Of It Ends Up”
For nearly 50 years, the Sea Education Association has taken college students sailing on the ocean to study biology. During the weeks-long voyages, students drag a plankton net (imagine a super-long butterfly net) next to the ship twice a day and study what they catch.
SEA’s Dr. Kara Lavender Law Delivers Keynote Lecture at Middlebury’s Clifford Symposium
September 26, 2019
SEA Semester in the NEWS
“It’s an ‘Unfathomable’ Amount, Says Ocean Plastics Expert”
MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Around 2007, Kara Lavender Law began hearing public reports of a floating patch of garbage in the Pacific Ocean—a great island of trash, of cast-off plastic polluting the world’s waters.