NOC Expedition to Explore Microplastics and Ocean Carbon

National Oceanography Centre’s (NOC) RRS Discovery will leave Southampton on Friday for a research expedition to the Northeast Atlantic.

The expedition aims to answer fundamental questions about the distribution, fate and effects of microplastic pollution, as well as conducting the first international collaboration at the Porcupine Abyssal Plane sustained ocean observatory.

The NOC-led expedition will conduct a range of experiments into microplastics at depth, and use a range of international methods of measuring carbon in the ocean. This will enable improved future comparisons of international data sets and techniques, which will help create a more complete picture of the movement of carbon through the global ocean, NOC said.

NOC scientists Professor Richard Lampitt, who is leading this research expedition, said: “This is a great example of the NOC leading the way in facilitating international oceanography. Understanding carbon in the ocean, and so how it may change in the future, is fundamental to many aspects of oceanography as well as improving predictions of our future climate.”

Located in the Porcupine Abyss Plain (PAP) – the nearest deep ocean to the UK – the sustained observatory, where these experiments are being conducted, provides key time-series datasets for analysing the effect of climate change on the open ocean and deep-sea ecosystems.

This expedition will also involve experiments into the volume of microplastics at different depths within the ocean, as well as the first controlled experiment into impact of microplastics on the death rates of tiny, shrimp-like creatures at the base of the food-chain.

NOC scientist, Dr Katsiaryna Pabortsava, who will be conducting much of the research into microplastics on board, said “Currently the microplastics we are seeing at the surface do not correlate with the volume we estimate is in the ocean as a whole. Investigating microplastics at depth could help solve this mystery about where pollution is going within the ocean.”

Sediment traps at 3000 metres below the ocean’s surface will collect the microplastics that sink to the deep ocean over the course of a year. Water pumps will also be lowered over the side of the research ship to measure the amount of microplastics at different depths within the water column.

Furthermore, an experiment will take place on board the research ship to feed small plastic particles to tiny shrimp-like creatures, referred to as micro-zooplankton. The plastics are expected to fill up their guts, creating an illusion of fullness and reducing the amount of other food they eat.

Dr Pabortsava added: “Understanding the impact of microplastic on micro-zooplankton is important because of the key role these tiny creatures play in the global carbon cycle and the food chain.”

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