NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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Using Big Data to Share Scientific Knowledge

Green sea turtle hatchling making tracks in the sand.

Data management tools like NOAA’s DIVER help turn lots of disparate sets of data into insight about the nature and location of the greatest threats to marine wildlife. (NOAA)

By Ben Shorr

Big data.

The term has been a buzzword in the media and data management circles for years now, but what does it mean and how does it relate to modern science?

In general, big data is defined as extremely large data sets that cannot be easily analyzed using traditional database methods. In today’s data-driven economy, business and media companies have embraced big data as a way to analyze how to better serve their customers.

Scientists look at big data from a different perspective. New tools and techniques have improved how we manage and share datasets, and also how we store, process and analyze scientific data. Having to manage and analyze large amounts of data is not new to science: Collecting and analyzing information is the foundation of scientific inquiry. What has changed is the sheer volume of digitized data available to scientists, distributed storage environments (i.e., the Cloud), and the challenge of how to integrate and broadcast those data.

In the past, scientists often distributed data by presenting at conferences or publishing in peer-reviewed scientific journals. That meant good science was collected in binders and placed on bookshelves in a physical location. In addition, scientists were not always so forthcoming in sharing data because of the real fear of getting scooped, but the culture is changing — and scientists are seeing benefits of sharing data earlier to both the science community and the public.

These are a few of the challenges encountered in trying to address the unprecedented magnitude and complexity of data collected and available for environmental spill response and restoration.

Integrating environmental data 

The real world experience with legacy data management systems and building new data management systems to work with those existing programs, has informed our entire approach to managing environmental data, and is a key part of our approach to current and future data management.

For years, NOAA and ocean advocates have been talking about a concept known as “ecosystem-based management” for marine species and habitats. Put simply, ecosystem-based management is a way to find out what happens to the larger tapestry design and function when one thread is pulled from the cloth.

We were able to leverage “big data” techniques and develop a data warehouse and information portal built with open source tools for ingesting, integrating and organizing information. This tool, called the Data Integration Visualization, Exploration and Reporting (DIVER) application, allows scientific teams from different organizations to upload their field data and other key information related to their studies, such as scanned field notes, electronic data sheets, scanned images, photographs, and to filter and download results.

For instance, the large quantity and multitude of sources for the data collected from the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) spill results in datasets of different types and structures. DIVER addresses this challenge by integrating standardized data and allowing users to query across multiple datasets simultaneously.

 

Map view of DIVER software map showing where tagged dolphins swam in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

A map view of DIVER shows where tagged dolphins traveled along the Gulf Coast, showing two populations that stayed in their home bases of Barataria Bay and Mississippi Sound. (NOAA)

 

To facilitate this process, the DIVER team developed common data models, which provides a consistent and standardized structure for managing and exchanging information. DIVER was developed to support data generated in the DWH oil spill response and assessment efforts. DIVER data models and a data warehouse approach have expanded to serve the entire coastal and Great Lakes of the United States. The common data model concept is based upon creating data schemas, which serve as blueprints to organize and standardize information.

Powerful tools for protecting marine habitats

Data integration systems like DIVER put all of that information in one place at one time, allowing users to look for causes and effects that they might not have ever known were there and then use that information to better manage species recovery. These data give us a new kind of power for protecting marine species.

Systems like DIVER are set up to take advantage of quantum leaps in computing power and tools that were not available to the field of environmental conservation 10 years ago. These advances give DIVER the ability to accept reams of diverse and seemingly unrelated pieces of information and, over time, turn them into insight about the nature and location of the greatest threats to marine wildlife.

 

Ultimately, all the advancement in data sharing benefits not only the science and academic communities but also the public.

Ben Shorr has been a physical scientist with the Office of Response and Restoration since he came to Seattle (mostly to ski and sail) in 2000. Ben works on a range of topics, from cleanup, damage assessment, and restoration to visualization and spatial analysis. In his spare time, Ben enjoys hanging out with his kids, which means riding bikes, skiing, and sailing too!


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Constituent and Legislative Affairs Internship

Large white building with green lawn in front.

The U.S. Capitol Building. (Architect of the Capitol)

We invite you to join a dedicated and enthusiastic team at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration where you will gain invaluable resume-building experience and an insider’s perspective from the nation’s leader in ocean conservation and management.

As an intern, you will work on a variety of projects focusing on outreach and public engagement. Based at our headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. (easily accessible on Metro’s Red Line), you will be in the loop on and encouraged to attend marine policy events, lectures, conferences, and receptions that provide fantastic networking opportunities for your career development.

Position Description

Volunteers pick up marine debris on a beach in Washington state. (NOAA)

OR&R faces the challenges of supporting NOAA and federal initiatives while keeping pace with Congress and constituents in support of our major programs:

  • Emergency response support for 120–200 oil and chemical spills in coastal waters each year
  • Natural Resource Damage Assessment and environmental restoration planning
  • NOAA’s Marine Debris Program
  • NOAA’s Disaster Response Center

OR&R works on critical environmental hazard issues, such as oil spill response, offshore drilling policy, marine debris prevention and reduction, and restoring natural resources. We are looking for motivated self-starters who enjoy independent as well as group work to join our team. The ideal candidate for this internship will possess a strong academic background and the desire to immerse him or herself in the world of marine policy and the internal workings of a federal office.

Two people on beach picking up trash.

Volunteers pick up marine debris on a beach in Washington state. (NOAA)

Major Responsibilities

  • Assist in preparations for one-on-one meetings with key OR&R constituents and events to support OR&R programs; assist in note-taking at events and prepare debrief materials.
  • Attend NGO, interagency, and Congressional events and prepare debrief materials for OR&R staff
  • Assist in preparation for and execution of congressional outreach events, such as briefings, hearings, and testimonies
  • Write and update biographical profiles for key members of Congress and stakeholder groups
  • Track progress of key legislation and policy initiatives
  • As experience permits, provide input on federal policy initiatives, including permits, administration views, and agreements
  • Assist in special projects as needed that fit your interest and skill areas, including research reports, video production, or media relations

Desired Qualifications

  • Interest or experience in marine policy and communications

    A heavy band of oil is visible on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico

    A heavy band of oil is visible on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico during an overflight of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on May 12, 2010. Predicting where oil like this will travel depends on variable factors including wind and currents. (NOAA)

  • Strong writing and verbal communications skills
  • Familiarity with MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint software
  • Excellent attention to detail and a strong work ethic
  • Experience researching academic literature or legislation
  • Familiarity with Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Calendar

Eligibility and Compensation:

OR&R cooperates with institutions of higher learning and internship coordination programs to support students who have arranged to receive credit for their work. Interns are also expected to develop a project based on their interests and present on the project to the NOAA community. We can accommodate part- time and full-time availability. While the duration of internships can vary, most typically last at least 10 weeks. At this time, stipends are not offered. Internships are open to students age 16 and older. The NOAA Office of Security requires a background check for all interns and staff; this process will begin at the start of your internship.

Non-US citizens must hold an appropriate visa and be accepted as an intern at least 45 days prior to the scheduled start date to complete additional security clearance.

To apply, email a cover letter (including dates of availability), resume and a writing sample to Policy Analyst Robin Garcia at Robin.Garcia@noaa.gov.

Application deadline is Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017

Please review the OR&R Internships page for further details on eligibility for this and other OR&R intern positions.


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Sticky Black Gobs on the Beach: The Science of Tarballs

People walking on beach with tarballs on sand.

Extensive tarballs are visible in the foreground and surf zone in this image from the Gulf Islands National Seashore, FL., shot on July 1, 2010. Credit NOAA.

Walking on the beach one of life’s great pleasures. The walking on the beach and ending up with sticky black balls attached to your feet is not so pleasurable.

Tarballs, those sticky black gobs, are often leftover from an oil spill. When crude oil (or a heavier refined product) hits the ocean’s surface it undergoes physical change. The change process is called “weathering.” As the wind and waves stretch and tear the oil patches into smaller pieces, tarballs are formed. Tarballs can be as flat and large as pancakes or as small as a dime. How long do tarballs remain sticky? Are tarballs hazardous to your health? How are tarballs removed from affected beaches? Those and other questions, including how to report new sightings of tarballs, can be found here.

Block glob of tar on sand.

Tarball found on Dauphin Island, AL. Credit NOAA.


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Restoring Marsh Habitat by Sharing Assessment Techniques

Group of four people stand in a marsh.

Training participants examine a one meter square quadrant transect (rod at bottom) to illustrate how new metrics could be applied for a northeast assessment. (NOAA)

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to environmental assessments for oil spills or hazardous waste events. We must therefore custom-tailor our technical approach for each pollution incident.

We first determine whether impacts to natural resources have occurred and whether it is appropriate to proceed with a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). We collect time-sensitive data, evaluate available research and information about the type of injury, and determine what species and habitats are likely to have been affected. If we determine that habitats, wildlife or human uses have been harmed or could experience significant impacts, we often proceed with a full damage assessment.

This type of scientific assessment is particularly challenging in a marsh environment given potential injury due to both oil persistence and toxicity. For example, a home heating oil released by the North Cape barge in 1996 caused acute injury to lobsters, clams, fish, crabs, and mussels in, and adjacent to, the marshes of southern Rhode Island. The light oil was highly toxic, but quickly dissipated, thereby causing a lot of immediate injury, but less long-term problems. By contrast, a more chronic impact was the result of persistent fuel oil released by the Barge Bouchard 120 in the salt marshes of Massachusetts in 2003. That oil saturated 100 miles of shoreline, impacting tidal marshes, mudflats, beaches, and rocky shorelines. These evolving factors are why we constantly share best practices and lessons learned among our colleagues in the northeast and nationwide.

Members of the Northeast and Spatial Data Branch of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and NOAA’s Restoration Center recently met at Spermaceti Cove, Sandy Hook, New Jersey, to participate in a hands-on workshop to improve our salt marsh damage assessment techniques and data compilation.

They were building on previous findings presented at a 2015 salt marsh assessment workshop in Massachusetts, that information learned there should be shared in other locales. Of note were the variety of vegetation and native invertebrates around the coastal United States that necessitate region-specific marsh field training.

Two people standing in shallow water holding a seining net.

Scientists seining salt marsh tidal channel collecting native small fish for injury determination. (NOAA)

To address the study of natural resource damages in a mid-north Atlantic salt marsh environ, this 2016 effort included the count of flora and fauna species within a 2 meter square quadrant along a designated transect (see photo) to provide a measure of diversity and species richness.  Also they used a seine, a lift net, and minnow traps to collect fish adjacent to the marsh for species identification and to measure body size and observe possible abnormalities, both external and internal.

Additionally, NOAA scientists discussed and demonstrated current best practices to perform our work regarding health and safety, sample custody, and data management.

In an actual future marsh injury assessment, the Trustees would develop a conceptual site model for guidance in testing the hypotheses, the specific study design, and the proper site and habitat injury measures.

Ken Finkelstein and Kathleen Goggin of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.


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What Scientists Learned About Cleaning up Oil Spills by Covering a Delaware Beach with Oil — on Purpose

Barrels and workers on a beach.

Delivery of barrels containing Bonny light Nigerian crude oil. Oil was weathered in a separate pool. (NOAA)

Most people don’t want to spill oil onto beaches. But after the disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez spill covered the remote, rocky beaches of Alaska’s Prince William Sound with crude oil, Al Venosa was itching to do exactly that.

As an environmental scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Venosa had been called up to Alaska to help study the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its cleanup. In particular, he was interested in an oil spill cleanup technique that was getting a lot of attention at the time—an approach known as “bioremediation.” It involved adding oil-eating microbes and extra nutrients to an oiled beach to accelerate the natural background process of microbes breaking down, or biodegrading, oil.

But Venosa wasn’t satisfied with the research attempts that came out of that spill. He wanted to set up a more scientifically rigorous and controlled study of how effective bioremediation was under realistic conditions in the marine environment. However, in the United States, getting permission to spill oil into the environment on purpose is a very difficult, and nearly impossible, thing to do.

Coming Together

Meanwhile, Ben Anderson, an oil spill biologist with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, had also been working on the cleanup after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Just a couple months after that iconic spill and shortly after he returned home from Alaska, he had to deal with a spill of hundreds of thousands of gallons of bunker oil when the T/V Presidente Rivera ran aground in the Delaware River. He remembered 1989 as a tough year for oil spills. Anderson began wondering how to improve the efficiency of oil spill cleanup and better protect Delaware’s abundant natural resources.

A few years later, in 1993, Anderson was listening to Ken Lee from Fisheries and Oceans Canada as he presented on bioremediation at the International Oil Spill Conference. At the end of his presentation, Lee mentioned how important—and difficult—it was to do controlled field studies on bioremediation. The comment got Anderson thinking; maybe he could help make this happen in Delaware.

“Anything we can do to improve the aftermath of an oil spill in Delaware,” recalled Anderson.

After the presentation, he approached Lee, who introduced him to Al Venosa. The pair decided to work together to bring Venosa’s meticulous research approach to a study of oil bioremediation on Delaware’s beaches.

“From that time to next summer, I worked on getting a permit with EPA and with the state,” said Anderson. He and his collaborators also reached out to local environmental groups in Delaware and to NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other agencies to build support for the research project, building in as many safeguards as possible to limit any potential environmental impacts.

One issue the research team would have to work around was the fact that each May, Delaware’s sandy shores are crawling with horseshoe crabs, a prehistoric marine creature with armor and a long, pointy tail, which comes ashore to lay its eggs. More than 20 species of birds, as they migrate north to nest in the Arctic each summer, stop along these shores to nourish themselves with a feast of horseshoe crab eggs. To avoid interfering with this ecological phenomenon, Anderson and Venosa would have to start the experiment after horseshoe crab spawning season had passed.

Oil Ashore

With just a few days left before the experiment was to begin on July 1, 1994 and with Venosa and his colleagues at EPA and the University of Cincinnati already on the road from Ohio to Delaware, Anderson finally secured the needed permit.

Permissions in hand, the researchers set up the experiment very carefully. Unlike previous studies, they focused intensely on replication and randomization. They cordoned off five separate blocks of sandy beach on Delaware Bay, so that each block was parallel to the ocean yet would still be within reach of the tides.

Oiled test plots on a beach.

View up beach of the 20 oiled plots. (NOAA)

Within each block, they randomly assigned three oil treatment plots and one control plot, which was sprayed with only seawater. Plots undergoing the three oil treatments, after having weathered crude oil applied at the very beginning, were sprayed daily at low tide with seawater and nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), nutrients and oil-eating microbes, or nothing extra (essentially, only oil had been applied). This meant that each treatment and control was replicated five times, reducing the chance that human error or natural variation would skew the results.

“We grew up our microorganisms on the beach in 55 gallon drums using the same seawater, nutrients, and microorganism [species],” recounted Venosa, who served as the lead researcher for the study. “We added them back onto these plots every week, continuously growing and adding them. These [microbes] were adapted to the oil we used and to the climatic conditions at the site.”

As a precaution, the research team strung oil containment boom along the waters surrounding the experimental plots to catch any oil runoff. In addition, they lined up cages of filter-feeding oysters in the surf off of each study block, as well as farther up and down the shoreline, to act as natural oil monitors. NOAA ecologist Alan Mearns helped facilitate this monitoring and multiple toxicity studies to determine the potential toxicity of the various treatments over time.

Bioremediation for the Birds?

Fourteen weeks later, what did they find? According to one of the study write-ups published at the 1997 International Oil Spill Conference, the researchers found that:

“oil was lost naturally because of both physical and chemical processes and biodegradation, that degradation of oil alkanes and PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons] in upper intertidal sandy sediments could be enhanced with the continuous addition of dissolved nutrients, that treatment with oil-degrading bacteria provided no additional benefit, and that treatment neither enhanced nor reduced the toxicity of the oil.”

While the team did detect a boost in how quickly oil broke down in plots sprayed with nutrients (which fed naturally occurring microbes), it was a pretty minor benefit in the big picture of oil spill cleanup. And adding more microbes didn’t increase the rate of oil breakdown at all.

Delaware Bay’s waters are already rich with nutrients—and oil-eating microbes. “It was probably a lot of runoff from fertilizer from agriculture and wastewater treatment plants,” speculated Venosa. “We had a two to three times increase in the rate of biodegradation.”

However, for an area like Delaware Bay with high background levels of nutrients, Venosa wouldn’t recommend going to the trouble and cost of using bioremediation techniques, unless a spill happened right before something like the annual horseshoe crab spawning and bird migration.

“What we found was you don’t have to do any more nutrient addition,” said Anderson. “Just keep adding ambient water and keep it aerated to get the [biodegradation] benefit. Let nature take its course, but give it a little hand by keeping it wet on the beach face.”

Scientific Success

Overall, the research team considered the experiment a success. They finally had hard data, meticulously gathered, that showed bioremediation to be a “polishing technique,” to be potentially used in oil spills when the local conditions were right and only after other, quicker-acting cleanup methods had been applied first. If an area showed high local levels of nutrients and oil-degrading microbes, bioremediation likely wouldn’t be very effective.

“I was expecting more of a quantifiable effect in biodegradation, but I didn’t realize the nutrients were going to be relatively high in the background,” reflected Venosa. “I was expecting to see somewhat similar increases in the field as in the lab. In the laboratory, it’s different because your controls don’t have any nutrients, so whenever you add nutrients that are in excess of what they need to grow, you’ll see huge increases.”

As a result of this and subsequent studies in Canada, the EPA released guidance documents on implementing bioremediation methods in different environments, such as marine shorelines, freshwater wetlands, [PDF] and salt marshes.

These days, however, bioremediation is starting to mean more than just adding microbes or nutrients, and now includes a range of other products meant to stimulate oil-degrading activity. How well do they work? More research is needed. But not since 1994 on the shores of Delaware Bay has the United States seen another field experiment that has intentionally released oil into the environment to find out. That summer was a unique opportunity for oil spill scientists to learn, as rigorously and realistically as possible, how well a certain cleanup method could work on an oil spill.

For more information read:

Field-Testing Bioremediation Treating Agents: Lessons from an Experimental Shoreline Oil Spill (1997, Alan Mearns et al)

Bioremediation Study of Spilled Crude Oil on Fowler Beach, Delaware

 

This post was written by Dr. Alan Mearns.


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Remotely Controlled Surfboards: Oil Spill Technology of the Future?

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s LTJG Rachel Pryor, Northwest Regional Response Officer.

A wave glider before being launched from the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson.

NOAA is exploring how to use technology such as wave gliders, small autonomous robots that travel at the ocean surface via wave energy, to collect oceanographic data during oil spills. (NOAA)

What do remotely controlled surfboards have to do with oil spills? In the future, hopefully a lot more. These “remotely controlled surfboards” are actually wave gliders, small autonomous robots that travel at the ocean surface via wave energy, collecting oceanographic data. Solar panels on top of the gliders power the oceanographic sensors, which transmit the data back to us via satellites.

I recently learned how to use the software that (through the internet) remotely drives these wave gliders—and then actually started “driving” them out in the open ocean.

Gathering Waves of Information

On July 7, 2016, NOAA launched two wave gliders off the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson to study ocean acidification through carbon analysis in the Bering Sea (which is off the southwest coast of Alaska).

A wave glider floating in the ocean.

One of the wave gliders recently deployed in the Bering Sea, with its solar panels on top powering the sensors. (NOAA)

One wave glider has “Conductivity Temperature Depth” (CTD) sensors, a fluorometer, water temperature sensors, and a meteorological sensor package that measures wind, temperature, and atmospheric pressure. The other glider has a sensor that measures the partial pressure of carbon (which basically tells us how much carbon dioxide the ocean is absorbing), an oxygen sensor, a CTD, pH instrumentation, and a meteorological package. The pair of gliders is following a long loop around the 60⁰N latitude line, with each leg of the loop about 200 nautical miles in length.

These wave gliders will be collecting data until the end of September 2016, when they will be retrieved by a research ship. The wave gliders require volunteer “pilots” to constantly (and remotely) monitor the wave gliders’ movements to ensure they stay on track and, as necessary, avoid any vessel traffic.

I’ve committed to piloting the wave gliders for multiple days during this mission. The pilot must be on call around the clock in order to adjust the gliders’ courses in case of an approaching ship or storm, as well as to keep an eye on instrument malfunctions, such as a low battery or failing Global Positioning System (GPS).

Screen view of software tracking and driving two wave gliders in the Bering Sea.

A view of the software used to track and pilot the wave gliders. The white cross is wave glider #1 and it is headed east. The orange cross marks show where it has been. The white star is wave glider #2, which is headed west, with the red stars showing where it has been. The blue lines indicate the vectors of where they will be and the direction they are headed. Wave glider #1 rounded the western portion of its path significantly faster than the other glider. As a result, the pilot rounded glider #2 to start heading east to catch up with glider #2. (NOAA)

The two wave gliders actually move through the water at different speeds, which means their pilot needs to be able to direct the vessels into U-turn maneuvers so that the pair stays within roughly 10 nautical miles of each other.

Remote Technologies, Real Applications

NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory has been using autonomous surface vessels to do oceanographic research since 2011. These autonomous vessels include wave gliders and Saildrones equipped with multiple sensors to collect oceanographic data.

During the summer of 2016, there are two missions underway in the Bering Sea using both types of vessels but with very different goals. The wave gliders are studying ocean acidification. Saildrones are wind- and solar-powered vessels that are bigger and faster. Their size allows them to carry a large suite of oceanographic instrumentation and conduct multiple research studies from the same vehicle.

For their latest mission, Saildrones are using acoustic sensors to detect habitat information about important commercial fisheries, such as pollock, and monitor the movement of endangered right whales. (Follow along with the mission.)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is interested in the potential use of aquatic unmanned systems such as wave gliders and Saildrones as a spill response tool for measuring water quality and conditions at the site of an oil spill.

These remotely operated devices have a number of advantages, particularly for spills in dangerous or hard-to-reach locations. They would be cost-efficient to deploy, collect real-time data on oil compound concentrations during a spill, reduce people’s exposure to dangerous conditions, and are easier to decontaminate after oil exposure. Scientists have already been experimenting with wave gliders’ potential as an oil spill technology tool in the harsh and remote conditions of the Arctic.

NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory is working closely with the designers of these two vehicles, developing them as tools for ocean research by outfitting them with a wide variety of oceanographic instrumentation. The lab is interested in outfitting Saildrones and wave gliders with special hydrocarbon sensors that would be able to detect oil for spill response. I’m excited to see—and potentially pilot—these new technologies as they continue to develop.

Woman in hard hat next to a tree on a boat.

NOAA Corps Officer LTJG Rachel Pryor has been with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division as an Assistant Scientific Support Coordinator since the start of 2015. Her primary role is to support the West Coast Scientific Support Coordinators in responding to oil discharge and hazardous material spills.


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In Florida, Rallying Citizen Scientists to Place an Ocean-Sized Problem Under the Microscope

This week, we’re exploring the problem of plastics in our ocean and the solutions that are making a difference. To learn more about #OceanPlastics this week, keep your eye on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, and, of course, here.

Young woman filling a one liter bottle with water along a marshy beach.

Florida Sea Grant has been teaching volunteers how to sample and examine Florida’s coastal waters for microplastics and educating the public on reducing their contribution to microplastic pollution. (Credit: Tyler Jones, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences)

Have you ever looked under a microscope at what’s in a sample of ocean water? What do you think you would find?

These days, chances are you would spot tiny bits of plastic known as microplastics, which are less than 5 millimeters long (about the size of a sesame seed).

The Florida Microplastic Awareness Project is giving people the opportunity to glimpse into Florida’s waters and see a microscopic world of plastic pollution up close. This project integrates citizen science—when volunteers contribute to scientific research—with education about microplastics.

I recently spoke with Dr. Maia McGuire of Florida Sea Grant. She’s leading the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, which is funded by a grant from the NOAA Marine Debris Program. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, of which the Marine Debris Program is a part, has a long history of collaborating with Sea Grant programs across the nation on a range of issues, including marine debris.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program has funded more than a dozen marine debris removal and prevention projects involving Sea Grant, and has participated in other collaborations with regional Sea Grant offices on planning, outreach, education, and training efforts. Many of these efforts, including the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, center on preventing marine debris by increasing people’s awareness of what contributes to this problem.

Combining Science with Action

Blue and white plastic fibers viewed under a microscope.

Volunteers record an average of eight pieces of microplastic per liter of water, with seven of those eight identified as plastic fibers (viewed here under a microscope). (Credit: Maia McGuire, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences)

This latest effort, the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, involves building a network of volunteers and training them to collect one liter water samples from around coastal Florida, to examine those samples under the microscope, and then to assess and record how many and what kinds of microplastics they find.

“Everything is microscopic-sized,” explains McGuire. “We’re educating people about sources of these plastics. A lot of it is single-use plastic items, like bags, coffee cups, and drinking straws. But we’re finding a large number are fibers, which come from laundering synthetic clothes or from ropes and tarps.”

Volunteers (and everyone else McGuire’s team talks to) also choose from a list of eight actions to reduce their contribution to plastic pollution and make pledges that range from saying no to plastic drinking straws to bringing washable to-go containers to restaurants for leftovers. For those who opt-in, the project coordinators follow up every three months to find out which actions the pledgers have actually taken.

“It’s been encouraging,” McGuire says, “because with the pledge and follow up, what we’ve found is that they pledge to take 3.5 actions on average and actually take 3.5 actions when you follow up.”

She adds a caveat, “It’s all self-reported, so take that for what it’s worth. But people are coming up to me and saying, ‘I checked my face scrub and it had those microbeads.’ It’s definitely resonating with people.”

Microplastics Under the Microscope

The project has trained 16 regional coordinators, who are based all around coastal Florida. They in turn train the volunteer citizen scientists, who, as of June 1, 2016, have collected 459 water samples from 185 different locations, such as boat ramps, private docks, and county parks along the coast.

“Some folks are going out monthly to the same spot to sample,” McGuire says, “some are going out to one place once, and others are going out occasionally.”

After volunteers collect their one liter sample of water, they bring it into the nearest partner facility with filtration equipment, which are often offices or university laboratories close to the beach. In each lab, volunteers then filter the water sample, using a vacuum filter pump, through a funnel lined with filter paper. “The filter paper has grid lines printed on it so you’re not double counting or missing any pieces,” McGuire adds.

Once the entire sample has been filtered, volunteers place the filter paper with the sample’s contents into a petri dish under a microscope at 40 times magnification. “Because we’re collecting one liter water samples, everything we’re getting is teeny-tiny,” McGuire says. “Nothing really is visible with the naked eye.”

Letting the filter paper dry often makes identifying microplastics easier because microscopic plastic fibers spring up when dry. And they are finding a lot of plastic fibers. On average, volunteers record eight pieces of microplastic per liter of water, and of those, seven are fibers. They are discovering at least one piece of plastic in nearly all of the water samples.

“If they have questions about if something is plastic, we have a sewing needle they heat in a flame,” McGuire says, “and put it under the microscope next to the fiber, and if it’s plastic, it changes shape in response to the heat.”

Next, volunteers record their data, categorizing everything into four different types of plastic: plastic wrap and bags, fibers, beads, or fragments. They use online forms to send in their data and log their volunteer information. McGuire is the recipient of all that data, which she sorts and then uploads to an online map, where anyone can view the project’s progress.

A Learning Process

Tiny white and purple beads piled next to a dime.

These purple and white microbeads are what microplastics extracted from facial scrub looks like next to a dime. Microbeads are being phased out of personal care products thanks to federal law. (Credit: Dave Graff)

“When I first wrote the grant proposal—a year and a half ago or more—I was expecting to find a lot more of the microbeads, because we were starting to hear more in the news about toothpaste and facial scrubs and the quantity of microbeads,” McGuire relates. “It was a little surprising at first to find so many [plastic] fibers. We have some sites near effluent outfalls from water treatment plants.”

However, McGuire points out that what they’re finding is comparable to what other researchers are turning up in the ocean and Great Lakes, except for one important point. Many of those researchers take water samples using nets with a 0.3 millimeter mesh size. By filtering through paper rather than a net, McGuire’s volunteers are able to detect much smaller microplastics, like the fibers, which otherwise would pass through a net.

“I think one big take-home message is there’s still so much we don’t know,” McGuire says. “We don’t have a lot of knowledge or research about what the impacts [of microplastics] actually are. We need a lot more research on this topic.”

Learn more about what you can do to reduce your contribution to plastic pollution, take the pledge with the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, and dive into the research projects supported by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, which are exploring: