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Ocean plastic pollution hotspots detected using satellites


Satellites have been used to detect patches of floating macroplastics in marine environments which could help to aid ocean clean ups.

The approach, which uses data from the European Space Agency Sentinel-2 satellites, is able to distinguish plastics from other materials with 86 per cent accuracy and can pick up pieces as small as 5mm.

The researchers from Plymouth Marine Laboratory were able to identify the material based on its spectral signatures – the wavelengths of visible and infrared light they absorbed and reflected.

The data was put through an algorithm tuned to highlighting objects floating on the surface of the ocean, which reflect near-infrared light while water absorbs it, to create a ‘floating debris index’.

They then used information on how the satellites ‘see’ collections of plastics deployed in the sea by the University of the Aegean for their new study into plastic litter, to establish an optical ‘signature’ of floating plastic.

These signatures were obtained from satellite data on plastic litter washed up in the Durban Harbour in South Africa on 24 April 2019 and floating plastic deployed by the authors off the coast of Mytilene (Greece) in 2018 and 2019.

They also used previously obtained satellite data on natural materials likely to be found together with marine plastic, such as seaweed, woody debris, foam and volcanic rock.

The authors tested their method on Sentinel-2 data from coastal waters in four different locations: Accra (Ghana), the San Juan islands (Canada), Da Nang (Vietnam) and east Scotland (UK).

The method successfully distinguished plastics from other floating materials or seawater with an average accuracy of 86 per cent across the four locations and 100 per cent accuracy off the San Juan islands.

Dr Lauren Biermann, Earth observation scientist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and lead author, said: “Plastic pollution is a global issue.

“This method will hopefully provide a stepping stone for satellites and drones to be used to tackle the marine plastics problem at the end of the product life-cycle.

“However, we will only ever make meaningful progress if we also tackle the source and reduce the amount of plastics produced.”

Earlier this week researchers demonstrated a new polymer that degrades under ultraviolet radiation which could help to alleviate marine plastic pollution if widely adopted.


This article was originally published on

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