Drs. Jamie Pierson and William Nardin, scientists at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s (UMCES) Horn Point Laboratory, have embarked on a research project that will lay the foundation for plastic research in the Chesapeake Bay. The two-year project, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program, began in January 2022 and will track how microplastics move through the Choptank River watershed on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Your gift will promote the development of new programs with partners and citizens to greatly expand our understanding of plastic pollution in our region, and train students on these cutting-edge techniques for this type of analysis.
The project studies the fate and transport of microplastics, providing a baseline of understanding of what kind of plastics exits in the waterway and how they move through coastal systems, particularly how marsh, wetlands and underwater grasses impact their flow and where they end up during different seasons throughout the year. Smaller particles have specific and important human and ecological health implications because they can enter the food chain when they are ingested by microscopic suspension feeders. Smaller marine species are eaten by larger marine life, eventually reaching humans in the food chain.
"A lot of attention is paid to the giant garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean, but these plastics came from somewhere. We have to understand where they are coming from and what happens to them before they get to the ocean,” said Associate Professor Jamie Pierson. “How microplastics transit through a system like the Choptank and its features—marshes, underwater grass beds, wetlands—might affect transport from source to open water.”
Studies have estimated that up to 95% of the waste that accumulates on shorelines, the sea surface, and the seafloor is plastic. To date, most published studies on plastic debris have focused on marine ecosystems and not estuaries, rivers, or freshwater systems. Even fewer studies have focused on the interaction of coastal wetlands, such as underwater grasses or marshlands, and the accumulation of microplastics.
"The goal is to develop a budget that illustrates plastic debris input and retention in marsh and open water habitats of the Choptank river system,” said Assistant Professor William Nardin. “Ultimately, this information will allow stakeholders to examine how plastic debris deposition differs across habitats, different flow regimes, and different plastic loads, and to assess potential management strategies to mitigate plastic pollution.”
Plastic samples of all sizes, from plastic bags to microplastics barely invisible to the naked eye, will be collected and examined. Experiments will look at six different types of plastic, which degrade differently and have different densities, and how they may be trapped or move differently in different places in the river at different times of year.
This camera microscope system greatly expands the capability of plastics assessment by increasing the rate at which plastic pollution data can be assessed and by expanding the breadth of plastic types identified, while eliminating the use of chemical dyes. Each type of plastic emits different wavelengths and patterns of light allowing differentiation of the different types. This data provides understanding of where, how much and what kind of plastics are in the Choptank River and how they are transported through the ecosystem. A drone outfitted with a special camera is also being used to scope out larger plastic debris in the watershed from above. It can identify different types of plastics, from plastic bags to beach balls to water bottles.
“Potentially, we’ll be able to make the connection between bigger pieces of plastic in a marsh that break down, and the pieces feeding into the river system leading to microplastics in the water. We’re hoping to figure out if different types of debris get moved in different ways,” said Pierson.
The newly acquired SWIR microscope makes the cost per sample negligible and allows the development of new programs with partners and citizens to greatly expand our understanding of plastic pollution in our region, and train students on these cutting-edge techniques for this type of analysis. The project will also create a group made up of experts and stakeholders that will advise the research in specific ways to ensure that the outcomes of the project are relevant to policy makers and directly inform management actions regarding plastic marine debris.
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