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Modelling the Distribution of Microplastics

Studies have highlighted the interaction of oceanographic and environmental variables on the distribution of microplastics (e.g. Eriksen et al. 2013). As polymer densities affect the distribution of plastics in the water column, it is important to understand how microplastics are transported at the surface and at depths. Knowledge of point-source pollution, including riverine input and sewage drainage into marine and coastal environments, can be useful in understanding the extent to which certain ecosystems are affected. Furthermore, knowledge of plastic accumulation on beaches will benefit the study of microplastics. For example, a study of plastic litter washed onto beaches developed a particle tracking model, which indicated that, if levels of plastic outflow remain constant over the coming decade, plastic litter quantity on beaches would continue to increase, and in some cases (3 % of all east Asian beaches) could see a 250-fold increase in plastic litter (Kako et al. 2014). If not removed, these larger items of plastic litter will break down into microplastics over time.

The fate of plastics in the marine environment is affected by poorly understood geophysical processes, including ocean mixing of the sea-surface boundary layer, re-suspension from sediments, and sinking rates plastics denser than seawater. Modelling approaches are required to further understand, and accurately estimate the global distribution, residence time, convergence zones, and ecological consequences of microplastics (Ballent et al. 2013). Models predicting the breakdown, fragmentation, and subsequent mixing and re-suspension of microplastics in sediments and seawater could provide an estimation of microplastic accumulation over short and long time scales; as well as an estimation of the dispersal patterns of microplastics in the marine environment. Generalized linear models have indicated that oceanographic mechanisms may promote topographic trapping of zooplankton and microplastics, which may be retained by small-scale circulation patterns in the Equatorial Atlantic, suggesting there is an outward gradient of microplastics moving offshore (Ivar do Sul et al. 2013). The recovery of plastic from surface seawater is dependent on wind speeds: stronger winds resulted in the capture of fewer plastics because wind-induced mixing of the surface layer vertically distributes plastics (Kulkula et al. 2012). Furthermore, by integrating the effect of vertical wind mixing on the concentrations of plastics in Australian waters, researchers estimated depth-integrated plastic concentrations, with high concentrations expected at low wind speeds. Thus, with the inverse relationship between wind force and plastic concentration, net tow concentrations of microplastics increased by a factor of 2.8 (Reisser et al. 2013).

Ballent et al. (2013) used the MOHID modelling system to predict the dispersal of non-buoyant pellets in Portugal using their density, settling velocity and re-suspension characteristics. Researchers simulated the transport of microplastic pellets over time using oceanographic processes, scales and systems. Model predictions suggest that the bottom topography restricts pellet movement at the head of the Nazaré Canyon with a potential area of accumulation of plastics pellets on the seafloor, implying long-term exposure of benthic ecosystems to microplastics. Tidal forces, as well as large-scale oceanographic circulation patterns are likely to transport microplastics up and down the Nazaré Canyon, which may be greatly increased during mass transport of waters linked to storms (Ballent et al. 2013) or deep-water cascading events (Durrieu de Madron et al. 2013).

With residence times from decades to centuries predicted for microplastics in the benthic environment (Ballent et al. 2013), future studies should assess the degradation of microplastics on the seafloor to be able to estimate residence times in those potential sink environments. Coupled with observations of microplastics in surface waters, the total oceanic plastic concentrations might be underestimated because of limited but growing knowledge of the geophysical and oceanographic processes in the surface waters. Furthermore, as microplastics degrade towards a nanometre scale, transport properties may be affected, and as a result, long-term transport models will need to be corrected. Modelling should be adapted to bring in ecological consequences of microplastics in benthic environments and the water column.

Research should focus on critical areas such as biodiversity hotspots and socio-economic hotspots that could affect vulnerable marine biota and coastal communities.


Microplastics have been documented in almost every habitat of the open oceans and enclosed seas, including beaches, surface waters, water column and the deep seafloor. Although most water bodies have been investigated, there is a lack of published work from polar regions and the Indian Ocean. Further research is required to accurately estimate the amount of different types of microplastics in benthic environments around the globe. Distribution of microplastics depends on environmental conditions including ocean currents, horizontal and vertical mixing, wind mixing and biofilm formation, as well as the properties of individual plastic polymers. A number of modelling approaches have been considered in the recent literature, which highlighted the effect of wind on the distribution of microplastics in the ocean. Oceanographic modelling of floating debris has shown accumulation in ocean gyres, and the distribution of microplastics within the water column appears to be dependent on the composition, density and shape of plastic polymers affecting their buoyancy. Further modelling studies may help to identify and predict regions with ecological communities and fisheries more vulnerable to the potential consequences of plastic contamination. The distribution of microplastic plays a significant role in terms of which organisms and habitats are affected. Widespread accumulation and distribution of microplastics raises concerns regarding the interaction and potential effects on marine organisms.

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