garbage patches in Earth's oceans

Satellites are tracking rivers of garbage that flow through the oceans

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There is an ocean of artificial garbage floating in the seas of the Earth. From plastic straws to drink bottles to food wrappers, ocean waters are the fastest growing junkyard on this planet. Some of the plastic is ground up into tiny beads and ends up in the food chain, with humans at the top. For that reason, and many others, the European Space Agency is tracking plastics reaching the ocean through the auspices of the MARLISAT project. It is one of 25 efforts created to identify and track marine debris as it moves through the world’s waterways. The ultimate goal is to help countries reduce garbage in the oceans, particularly plastics.

The existence of plastics in the ocean is not some far-fetched scare story. It is a verifiable fact, based on data that shows what floats in our oceans. People who work or vacation at sea and who live along the coast easily detect the most obvious collections of garbage. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is probably the best-known garbage collection, but there are others. Also, satellites are tracking things from space.

There is a lot of garbage out there. According to the European Space Agency, the equivalent of a truckload of plastic reaches the oceans every minute. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states that there is no part of the world that has not been touched by ocean debris. Waterborne litter is widespread, affecting all of the world’s waterways and oceans. That’s the bad new. The good news is that MARLISAT and other projects give a clearer view of the garbage and where it goes.

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Satellite tracking of plastic waste

Finding out where ocean debris is going requires monitoring capabilities across ocean systems. Garbage in the seas takes complex routes, depending on the currents it encounters. The researchers took advantage of a complex set of currents off the coast of Indonesia to test prototypes of trackable wooden buoys. The French organization CLS (short for Collecte Localization Satellites) developed and launched them at the end of May 2022. The buoys will spend the rest of this summer traveling on currents, as part of a project developed by the French space agency CNES. Oversees satellite tracking of tagged marine animals, buoys and fishing fleets. The main trackers are part of the Argos geopositioning system, which makes satellite navigation arrangements and returns them to CLS through a satellite link.

Deployment of a wood tracker attached to plastic waste. Courtesy ESA.

The MARLISAT project uses tracking buoys and Earth observation images from space to detect sources of plastic and other debris in the ocean. The data collected helps forecast the movement of this material and where it tends to accumulate. An ocean drift model called MOBIDRIFT, developed by CLS, helps predict the location of ocean debris as it moves around the globe. Additionally, the data and satellite images are used in a machine learning algorithm being developed to detect plastic buildup along beaches and ocean hotspots.

machine learning to teach computers how to detect garbage and plastics in the oceans.
Example of a machine learning algorithm based on data collected by MARLISAT and fed into computer models. Courtesy ESA.

“The strength of this project is the combination of satellite observations, in situ data, and numerical modeling,” says Marc Lucas, senior oceanographer at CLS. “It’s also great to have worked on a more sustainable type of Argos bollard, with wood used for the casing. As scientists, we have a duty to work towards a more sustainable approach to science.”

Why worry about plastic garbage in the sea?

The massive accumulation of garbage in the sea is more than unsightly and unhealthy. Some materials, such as plastic drink collars, straws, and bottles, are eaten by larger animals (whales and sharks, for example). Eventually, those animals die with their bellies full of undigested plastic, and other animals strangle themselves with plastic materials.

microplastics as part of the garbage in our water
These microplastics were collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Marine Debris Program in 2011 via a manta trawl in four tributaries that empty into the Chesapeake Bay. Courtesy NOAA.

Massive plastic litter in the ocean contributes to changes in the food chain that stretches from the ocean to our plates. It’s not hard to figure out that way. Plastics thrown into the sea do not biodegrade. Instead, wave action breaks them into tiny pieces. Shellfish and other species then eat these microplastic pieces. As a result of this contamination, the chemicals used to make the plastics are passed on to other animals in the food chain. Ultimately, we humans eat some of these animals and we too are contaminated with the same chemicals. These are likely to be toxic, depending on how much we eat, the type of plastic polymer ingested, and other factors.

The MARLISAT project to track plastic and other trash in the ocean should help countries and companies focus on cleaning up oceans and coastlines. Addressing the problem of plastic debris in the oceans is a global effort. In addition to ESA, other space agencies, such as NASA, have launched ocean-focused Earth observation systems. Learning more about how our waterways and seas are affected by human activity is an important goal. It’s getting easier now, thanks to space-based data collection and tracking systems.

For more information

Tracking marine plastic drift from space
A guide to plastic in the ocean
marine debris
The Discovery Campaign on Remote Sensing of Plastic Marine Litter
Garbage patches: how gyres carry our garbage to the sea

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