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report on micro plastic and phytoplankton

report on micro plastic and phytoplankton

This is a hugely important subject; phytoplankton are the root of the food chain and life support system for the planet. Without phytoplankton it would not be impossible for life to exist on earth

Phytoplankton are a planktonic ocean drifter, photosynthetic organisms that include cyanobacteria, protists, carbonate, silica and even Strontium based single celled marine plants as well as chains of cells.


There are many different types of cyanobacteria, but Prochlorococcus was only discovered in 1985 by an American research team. Most Oceanographic surveys use plankton nets that range in size from 30um to 300um. The primary team in the UK use CPR continuous plankton recorder with 270um silk mesh, so the bacteria are missed.   Prochlorococcus is the most numerous organism on the planet, 1027 cells, this means there are more cells of this plant than grains of sand. The plant is responsible for anything between 10% and 30% of all our oxygen and carbon fixation. Yet we didn’t even know it existed until 1985.

A report recently published in Nature, [1] reports that plastic is toxic to Prochlorococcus, and a new report by the Economist,[2] cite that forms of the plastic Teflon are now in 80% of plankton in the Pacific and Arctic. It was a small sample size, but the results are disturbing.  If this is the situation, then the toxic-or-ever plastic is probably in 99.99% of plankton samples in the Atlantic Ocean.

Report in NATURE,[3]  up to 21 million tonnes of plastic between 32um and 651um are now in the Atlantic Ocean.  These plastic components will breakdown to smaller and smaller fractions, and then impact on Prochlorococcus. The larger particles will be toxic to the larger phytoplankton.


Up to 80% of all our oxygen [4] and carbon fixation comes from the oceans, the oceans have absorbed around 30% of all anthropogenic carbon. Diatoms are responsible for 20% to 50% of all our oxygen [5][6], and if they are producing oxygen they are removing carbon dioxide. Dead Diatoms generate a sediment in the Abyss 500m to 1000m deep, this is the primary carbon bank for the planet, the location where all carbon will eventually be deposited. Diatoms produce DMS dimethyl sulphide, which is implicated in cloud formation, diatoms as well as bits of diatoms carried up into the upper atmosphere as aerosols nucleate clouds. Without diatoms cloud formation, rain patterns, and atmospheric energy adsorption and radiation would be radically different. Carbonate based phytoplankton Coccolithophores are also important, they are almost as abundant as diatoms and have contributed to kilometre thick carbonate based (carbon) ooze in the Abyss[7]. The smell of the Ocean is the smell of coccolithophores, they are in the atmosphere, and they are in your body, as are diatoms. strong>

GOES project

The GOES project have just completed a survey of the Equatorial Atlantic at 15 deg North. Our findings show that there was up to 10 particles of microplastic fibre per litre of water up to approximately 300nm from land. This will depend upon current direction, please note our survey did not include microplastic particles.[8]  [9] GHG and phytoplankton Carbon dioxide and methane combined represent about 25% of GHG greenhouse gases. By far the most important GHG is Water Vapour at 75%. It is considered that you can’t control water vapour pressure, so the world has focused on CO2. By reducing CO2 you lower the temperature and reduce evaporation from the oceans and thereby reducing water vapour pressure.

The problem is that atmospheric CO2 levels are not being reduced, and temperature keeps going up which increases evaporation and atmospheric water vapour pressure. You are now into a self-reinforcing feedback loop, that we may not be able to stop since water vapour represents 75% of all greenhouse-gases.     

At GOES we believe that you can control atmospheric water vapour pressure independently of CO2. Water vapour pressure is regulated by marine phytoplankton species such as Diatoms and Coccolithophores that produce Omega 3 oils and lipids. The lipids form a molecular thick layer on the ocean surface to slow down evaporation. There has been almost zero research in this area, but we know that it will have a major impact from other studies such as Urban Water Alliance.[10]                                                                    

A monolayer of phytoplankton lipids could slow down evaporation and energy transfer by as much as 40%. Unfortunately, due to microplastic pollution coupled with lipophilic toxic for ever chemicals we are going to accelerate Ocean Acidification which will take out the carbonate based and silicon phytoplankton first, and they are the best producers of lipids. We have already seen a 50% decline in primary productivity by phytoplankton which means a 50% reduction of the lipid blanket.

40% decline of phytoplankton [11]

50% decline of krill N Atlantic 60 year study [12]

NASA video on satellite images 

Phytoplankton concentrations are a variable, and vary over annual and decadal cycles, but the general trend is down.

Phytoplankton therefore have an unquantified major role in controlling atmospheric water vapour pressure.  Microplastics combined will lipophilic toxic chemicals are known to reduce phytoplankton growth. As the phytoplankton decline, carbon dioxide (carbonic acid) will increase at a faster rate than the IPCC predict under RCP8.5. From the IPCC data.  [13]  the Ocean reference point in the Pacific will be pH 7.95 by 2045. Due to the lower alkalinity of the Southern Ocean, it may reach pH7.95 by 2035. Also, from the IPCC they state, magnesium calcite and aragonite forms of carbonate starts to dissolve at pH 8.04, we are currently at pH8.03. By the time the pH drops to pH7.98, 50% of carbonate-based life forms will have dissolved or be under serious stress and will be predisposed to infection or elevated temperatures.

Due to a combination of microplastic accelerated ocean acidification we could be looking at a total regime shift in the phytoplankton with the production of HABS, hazardous algal blooms due to dinoflagellates.[14]  The authors say this is due to temperature and nutrients, but it could also be due to pollution and ocean acidification.  The Infographic is from the IPEN report, shows we have already lost around 50% of marine phytoplankton. [15]  Another report from IPEN on marine plastic pollution. [16]

Plastic is toxic because of the chemicals that it contains, such as plasticisers, UV stabilizers and antioxidants. Plastic does not get wet, it is hydrophobic, and hydrophobic particles will tend to attract chemicals that don’t like getting wet, like oil based lipophilic chemicals such as PCBs, PBDE, PFOS, PFAS and Oxybenzone.  The plastic acts like a sponge to adsorb and concentrate the chemicals many hundreds or thousands of times. As the plastic ages it becomes more toxic, up to 80 times more toxic than new plastic. This is due to rougher and larger surface area available to leach toxins from or adsorbed by the plastic. Partially Combusted Carbon


Plastic is toxic due to the some of the chemicals added during manufacture, and to its ability to selectively adsorb other chemicals such as PCBs from the water. The PCBs identified in the IPEN report [16] from around the world, may in fact have been PCBs adsorbed by the plastic while at Sea.  Concentration of plastic in the in the Atlantic, is around 1 particle per litre, from the surface down to a depth of 200m.  Most particles are negatively buoyant and will be on the surface where they will be found at a higher concentration. The GOES project team identified particles which appear to be PCC partially combusted carbon, at surface concentrations between 100 and 1000 particles per litre of water across the Equatorial Atlantic at 15 deg North. It is believed the particles are predominantly from the combustion of bunker fuel oil attributed to the shipping industry. 300million tonnes of fuel oil are used every year and 6%, 18 million tonnes of sub 100 um particles are scrubbed out of the flue gases and discharged to the ocean surface water. The particles detected by the GOES team were greater than 20um.  However, it is expected that there are many times more sub 20um particles in the water. PCC contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which is toxic, as well as a range of heavy metals. Carbon is hydrophobic, so it behaves in the same way as microplastic and will adsorb chemicals such as PCBs from the water.[17][18][19][20][21]

Given the concentration of PCC, the known toxicity and perceived toxicity as the particle ages and adsorbs lipophilic chemicals, it is possible the PCC is many times more toxic than microplastics.  There is very little research on the subject, but all the data points to PCC being catastrophic for marine phytoplankton and zooplankton.

The next 25 years

Unless there is a major change over the next 25 years, the amount of pollution from plastic, chemicals and toxic particles are set to increase by a factor of 2 to 4 times. Carbon dioxide emissions will continue to increase, at least for the next 10 years. 80% of the world has no effluent treatment, this was the opening statement at the UN conference in Lisbon. Methane derived from anaerobic decomposition of human waste will increase. Rising temperature will also release methane from permafrost and nodules under the sea. From the IPCC methane is 28 times more of a GHG than carbon dioxide, recent evidence shows that it is possibly 80 times.[22][23][24] The loss of marine phytoplankton due to pollution and climate change will allow ocean acidification to progress unrestrained. Magnesium calcite and aragonite marine lifeforms will dissolve or will be seriously stressed, the same will apply to silica diatoms that we know are pH sensitive. From the IPCC we know that even if the world became carbon neutral by the end of the decade, atmospheric concentrations will still pass 500ppm and oceanic pH will still drop to less than pH7.95. Around 50% of all marine life has been lost since the 1940’s with increasing levels of pollution, ocean acidification and temperature, there will be a regime shift in the oceans and we will likely lose all the whales, seals, birds, and fish, and with them the food supply for 3 billion people. We already are witnessing an increase in HABs due to non-carbonate-based dinoflagellates, they will increase in al the oceans, especially coastal zones with higher concentrations of nutrients. With the loss if the surface lipid layer, and high temperatures we could potentially have uncontrollable climate change, even if we were carbon neutral or carbon negative. It is therefore not possible to control climate change by carbon mitigation, this is not going to work. We also need to regenerate Nature on land and marine life on our oceans.  Part of the solution is to prevent toxic for every chemicals, plastic and PCC from entering the environment.  Failure to achieve this task in combination with carbon mitigation strategies will be catastrophic and is an existential threat to the survival of humanity, not at some point in the distant future, but over the next 15 to 30 years.




 [1]       S. G. Tetu et al., ‘Plastic leachates impair growth and oxygen production in Prochlorococcus, the ocean’s most abundant photosynthetic bacteria’, Commun Biol, vol. 2, no. 1, Art. no. 1, May 2019, doi: 10.1038/s42003-019-0410-x.

[2]        ‘The Invisible Wave: Getting to zero chemical pollution Executive Summary’, Back to Blue - An initiative of Economist Impact and The Nippon Foundation. (accessed Jul. 31, 2022).

[3]        ‘High concentrations of plastic hidden beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean | Nature Communications’. (accessed Jul. 31, 2022).

[4]        ‘How much oxygen comes from the ocean?’ (accessed Jul. 31, 2022).

[5]        A. A. published, ‘The Air You’re Breathing? A Diatom Made That’,, Jun. 11, 2014. (accessed Jul. 31, 2022).

[6]        ‘What are Diatoms? - Diatoms of North America’. (accessed Jul. 31, 2022).

[7]        C. De vargas, M.-P. Aubry, I. Probert, and J. Young, ‘CHAPTER 12 - Origin and Evolution of Coccolithophores: From Coastal Hunters to Oceanic Farmers’, in Evolution of Primary Producers in the Sea, P. G. Falkowski and A. H. Knoll, Eds. Burlington: Academic Press, 2007, pp. 251–285. doi: 10.1016/B978-012370518-1/50013-8.

[8]        H. Dryden and D. Duncan, ‘GOES survey of the equatorial Atlantic and the next 25 years, are lipids a solution for climate change?. A GOES think piece’. Rochester, NY, Jul. 30, 2022. Accessed: Jul. 31, 2022. [Online]. Available:

[9]        H. Dryden and D. Duncan, ‘Climate regulating ocean plants and animals are being destroyed by toxic chemicals and plastics, accelerating our path towards ocean pH 7.95 in 25 years which will devastate humanity.’ Rochester, NY, Jun. 05, 2021. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.3860950.

[10]      ‘UWSRA-tr6.pdf’. Accessed: Jul. 31, 2022. [Online]. Available:

[11]      D. G. Boyce, M. R. Lewis, and B. Worm, ‘Global phytoplankton decline over the past century’, Nature, vol. 466, no. 7306, Art. no. 7306, Jul. 2010, doi: 10.1038/nature09268.

[12]      M. Edwards et al., ‘North Atlantic warming over six decades drives decreases in krill abundance with no associated range shift’, Commun Biol, vol. 4, no. 1, Art. no. 1, May 2021, doi: 10.1038/s42003-021-02159-1.

[13]      L.-Q. Jiang, B. R. Carter, R. A. Feely, S. K. Lauvset, and A. Olsen, ‘Surface ocean pH and buffer capacity: past, present and future’, Sci Rep, vol. 9, no. 1, Art. no. 1, Dec. 2019, doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-55039-4.

[14]      G. M. Hallegraeff et al., ‘Perceived global increase in algal blooms is attributable to intensified monitoring and emerging bloom impacts’, Commun Earth Environ, vol. 2, no. 1, Art. no. 1, Jun. 2021, doi: 10.1038/s43247-021-00178-8.

[15]      ‘ipen-fisheries-v1_6cw-en.pdf’. Accessed: Jul. 31, 2022. [Online]. Available:

[16]      ‘ipen-beach-plastic-pellets-v1_4aw.pdf’. Accessed: Jul. 31, 2022. [Online]. Available:

[17]      K. Kvale, A. E. F. Prowe, C.-T. Chien, A. Landolfi, and A. Oschlies, ‘Zooplankton grazing of microplastic can accelerate global loss of ocean oxygen’, Nat Commun, vol. 12, no. 1, p. 2358, Dec. 2021, doi: 10.1038/s41467-021-22554-w.

[18]      B. Comer, N. O. X. Mao, B. Roy, and D. Rutherford, ‘Black carbon emissions and fuel use in global shipping, 2015’, p. 103.

[19]      D. A. Lack and J. J. Corbett, ‘Black carbon from ships: a review of the effects of ship speed, fuel quality and exhaust gas scrubbing’, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, vol. 12, no. 9, pp. 3985–4000, May 2012, doi: 10.5194/acp-12-3985-2012.

[20]      J. Teuchies, T. J. S. Cox, K. Van Itterbeeck, F. J. R. Meysman, and R. Blust, ‘The impact of scrubber discharge on the water quality in estuaries and ports’, Environmental Sciences Europe, vol. 32, no. 1, p. 103, Jul. 2020, doi: 10.1186/s12302-020-00380-z.

[21]      M. Koski, C. Stedmon, and S. Trapp, ‘Ecological effects of scrubber water discharge on coastal plankton: Potential synergistic effects of contaminants reduce survival and feeding of the copepod Acartia tonsa’, Marine Environmental Research, vol. 129, Jun. 2017, doi: 10.1016/j.marenvres.2017.06.006.

[22]      ‘Major studies reveal 60% more methane emissions’, Environmental Defense Fund. (accessed Jul. 31, 2022).

[23]      ‘Methane: A crucial opportunity in the climate fight’, Environmental Defense Fund. (accessed Jul. 31, 2022).

[24]      ‘Why do we compare methane to carbon dioxide over a 100-year timeframe? Are we underrating the importance of methane emissions?’, MIT Climate Portal. (accessed Jul. 31, 2022).






Life on earth depends upon healthy Oceans, we have 10 years to stop toxic chemical pollution, or life on earth may become impossible

Dr. Howard Dryden, CSO

Goes Foundation

Roslin Innovation Centre
The University of Edinburgh
Easter Bush Campus
Midlothian EH25 9RG