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Highest Microplastic Levels Found In South China Sea

1st May 2018
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Start day on Leg 6 from Hong Kong to Auckland, 7 February 2018 Start day on Leg 6 from Hong Kong to Auckland, 7 February 2018 Photo: Pedro Martinez/Volvo Ocean Race

#Microplastic - The Volvo Ocean Race Science Programme has found the highest levels of microplastic in the South China Sea during Leg 6 from Hong Kong to Auckland this past spring.

Preliminary results show a whopping 360 particles of microplastic per cubic metre in the sample from the South China Sea, an area that feeds into the Great Pacific Ocean Gyre.

The Great Pacific Ocean Gyre is one of five major gyres, driven by trade and westerly winds, which collect large concentrations of plastic debris. 

In total, this gyre is thought to weigh around seven million tons and is twice the size of Texas.

The previous highest levels of 307 particles per cubic metre were discovered in the area where the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean meet.

Sailor Liz Wardley took the samples on Turn the Tide on Plastic as it travelled from Hong Kong east into the north Philippine Sea. 

The high readings coincided with the boat entering the Kuroshio current, which feeds the ocean gyre.

Dr Toste Tanhua of the GEOMAR Institute for Ocean Research Kiel, funded by the Cluster of Excellence Future Ocean, analysed the preliminary microplastics data at the laboratory in Kiel, Germany.

“Microplastic particles are mostly coming from land and are passively distributed by currents that can be very local in extent,” Dr Tanhua said. “Since the race yachts are not continuously sampling for microplastic, it can easily be that concentrations are very different for locations close to each other in areas of strong currents.

“The leg 6 data indicate high concentrations of microplastics close to the Asian continent, not unexpected considering the use of single-use plastics in this region.”

The route of Leg 6 partially overlapped the track that the boat sampled during the northbound passage to Hong Kong during Leg 4, providing a second sampling opportunity in some areas.

But there was a notable difference between levels of microplastics recorded during this leg compared to Leg 4 on the approach to Hong Kong from Melbourne.

The latest sample is possibly more representative of actual levels as it was taken closer to land and further northeast than the earlier sample.

Along the route south through the Pacific and crossing the equator, average levels in the areas sampled were around 100 particles per cubic metre. These recorded levels also differed considerably from those recorded during the northbound passage of Leg 4, when just seven particles per cubic metre were measured. Again, prevailing currents in this offshore area will be a major factor affecting microplastic density.

Progressing south towards New Zealand, the concentration increased from 45, 50, 56 to 60 particles per cubic metre in the sample closest to Auckland.

The information comes from the Volvo Ocean Race Science Programme, which has brought together an elite scientific consortium to capture data that will contribute to a better understanding of the world’s ocean and climate.

Microplastics are often invisible to the naked eye and can take thousands of years to degrade. By collecting information on their levels, the mission is helping scientists gain insight into the scale of plastic pollution and its impact upon marine life.

The Volvo Ocean Race Science Programme is funded by Volvo Cars, who are donating €100 from the first 3,000 sales of the new Volvo V90 Cross Country Volvo Ocean Race edition to support the initiative.

Published in Marine Science
MacDara Conroy

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MacDara Conroy

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MacDara Conroy is a contributor covering all things on the water, from boating and wildlife to science and business

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Marine Science Perhaps it is the work of the Irish research vessel RV Celtic Explorer out in the Atlantic Ocean that best highlights the essential nature of marine research, development and sustainable management, through which Ireland is developing a strong and well-deserved reputation as an emerging centre of excellence. From Wavebob Ocean energy technology to aquaculture to weather buoys and oil exploration these pages document the work of Irish marine science and how Irish scientists have secured prominent roles in many European and international marine science bodies.

 

At A Glance – Ocean Facts

  • 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by the ocean
  • The ocean is responsible for the water cycle, which affects our weather
  • The ocean absorbs 30% of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by human activity
  • The real map of Ireland has a seabed territory ten times the size of its land area
  • The ocean is the support system of our planet.
  • Over half of the oxygen we breathe was produced in the ocean
  • The global market for seaweed is valued at approximately €5.4 billion
  • · Coral reefs are among the oldest ecosystems in the world — at 230 million years
  • 1.9 million people live within 5km of the coast in Ireland
  • Ocean waters hold nearly 20 million tons of gold. If we could mine all of the gold from the ocean, we would have enough to give every person on earth 9lbs of the precious metal!
  • Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world – Ireland is ranked 7th largest aquaculture producer in the EU
  • The Atlantic Ocean is the second largest ocean in the world, covering 20% of the earth’s surface. Out of all the oceans, the Atlantic Ocean is the saltiest
  • The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean in the world. It’s bigger than all the continents put together
  • Ireland is surrounded by some of the most productive fishing grounds in Europe, with Irish commercial fish landings worth around €200 million annually
  • 97% of the earth’s water is in the ocean
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  • Only 10% of the oceans have been explored.
  • 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year, equal to dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.
  • 12 humans have walked on the moon but only 3 humans have been to the deepest part of the ocean.

(Ref: Marine Institute)

At A Glance – Figaro Race

  • It starts in June or July from a French port.
  • The race is split into four stages varying from year to year, from the length of the French coast and making up a total of around 1,500 to 2,000 nautical miles (1,700 to 2,300 mi; 2,800 to 3,700 km) on average.
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  • The competitor is alone in the boat, participation is mixed.
  • Since 1990, all boats are of one design.

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