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Plastic eaten by plankton may impair oceans’ ability to trap CO2

Oceans store up to half of all carbon dioxide produced by mankind in the last 200 years

A salp which is a jellyfish-like species known as zooplankton that brings carbon dioxide to the ocean floor where it is stored. Photograph: Ken O’Sullivan/Sea Fever Productions

A salp which is a jellyfish-like species known as zooplankton that brings carbon dioxide to the ocean floor where it is stored. Photograph: Ken O’Sullivan/Sea Fever Productions

 

Microscopic pieces of plastic consumed by plankton in the world’s oceans could be affecting the marine organisms’ ability to capture carbon dioxide, Irish scientists have warned.

Oceans have stored up to half of all CO2 produced by mankind in the last two centuries. And it is held at the bottom of the sea, according to marine scientists from the Ryan Institute at NUI Galway.

On the sea surface, microscopic algae turn dissolved CO2 into fuel known as organic carbon and these algae are consumed by many different animals, forming the basis of the marine food web.

Passing through the food chain, much of the organic carbon is released and converted back into CO2. Some of it is released into the ocean and the atmosphere. And more of it is transported to the sea floor by salps, jellyfish-like animals known as zooplankton which bring it to the bottom where it is stored.

However, microscopic pieces of waste plastics are interfering with the chain, according to the NUIG research carried out together with scientists at UCC and Villefranche sur Mer Laboratory in France.

Alina Wieczorek: ‘Our study suggests salp faecal pellets will remain at the sea surface for longer when they contain microplastics.’ Photograph: Dawid Piotr SzlagaAlina Wieczorek: ‘Our study suggests salp faecal pellets will remain at the sea surface for longer when they contain microplastics.’ Photograph: Dawid Piotr Szlaga Salps play a pivotal role in removing carbon dioxide from the surface of the world’s oceans. Photograph: Ken O’Sullivan/Sea Fever ProductionsSalps play a pivotal role in removing carbon dioxide from the surface of the world’s oceans. Photograph: Ken O’Sullivan/Sea Fever Productions

“(Salps) ingest algae at the sea surface and produce dense faecal pellets, which rapidly sink to the deep sea, carrying with them some of this captured carbon,” explained Alina Wieczorek of NUIG.

Experiments in Villefranche found that when salps ingest microplastics and incorporate them into their faecal pellets they did not sink as fast, according to research published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

“Our study suggests salp faecal pellets will remain at the sea surface for longer when they contain microplastics and while there, they may get broken down causing the CO2 to be re-released back into the ocean and atmosphere,” said Ms Wieczorek.

About the author

Dr. Howard Dryden

Dr. Howard Dryden

Dr. Dryden has unique knowledge combination of biology, chemistry and technology and is the inventor of the activated, bio-resistant filter media AFM®. Dr. Dryden is one of the world`s leading experts in sustainable water treatment.

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