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Scientists sound alarm over threat altering ocean's ability to absorb carbon: 'A threat to global scale processes'

This interference could worsen the impacts of Earth's overheating.

This interference could worsen the impacts of Earth's overheating.

Photo Credit: iStock

Microplastics in our oceans are not just a drop in the bucket — they're disrupting a key climate solution, new research warns.

What's happening?

Recent research has highlighted a new and concerning impact of microplastics in the ocean. 

Known hazards to marine life, microplastics are now also found to affect the ocean's capacity to sequester carbon. Carbon sequestration is like the Earth's natural vacuum cleaner for carbon dioxide. It captures carbon dioxide from the air and stores it in oceans, forests, or underground to help maintain environmental balance.

According to Earth.com, a study by researchers from Northeastern University and the University of New Hampshire has revealed that microplastics are disrupting the formation and sinking of "marine snow," a crucial process for carbon sequestration. The tiny plastic particles increase the buoyancy of marine snow, slowing its descent to the ocean floor and thereby reducing the ocean's efficiency in "sucking up" carbon dioxide from the atmosphere​.

"We're finding that it could be a threat to global scale processes, such as the carbon cycle that is so important for all life," lead researcher Aron Stubbins told Northeastern Global News.

Why are microplastics in the ocean concerning?

Microplastics in the ocean are a big concern because they disrupt a natural process that helps regulate Earth's climate. 

The ocean absorbs a significant amount of the carbon dioxide we produce, partly through "marine snow" — organic matter that sinks to the ocean floor, taking carbon dioxide with it. 

According to Earth.com, the study showed that marine snow with microplastics sank 20% slower than without microplastics, in controlled environments. This indicates that microplastics could reduce the ocean's efficiency at removing carbon from the atmosphere. This interference could worsen the impacts of Earth's overheating by keeping more carbon dioxide in the air. 

This can have downstream effects such as more frequent and intense heat waves and other extreme weather events. Changes in temperature and precipitation patterns also affect plant growth and agricultural productivity, potentially leading to droughts and disruptions in biodiversity. 

What's being done about microplastics in the ocean?

Addressing the challenge of microplastics in our oceans presents significant hurdles, but recent advancements offer hope. 

In South Korea, scientists have developed a groundbreaking filtration system using a material known as covalent triazene framework (CTF), reportedly capable of removing over 99.9% of microplastics in just 10 seconds without electricity. This innovation shows promise for delivering clean water, particularly in regions lacking power infrastructure. 

Meanwhile, researchers in China have introduced a biodegradable synthetic sponge composed of starch and gelatin that is capable of absorbing up to 90% of microplastics. This sponge could be applied in many settings — from wastewater treatment facilities to washing machines — and address microplastic pollution at its source.

These innovations, complemented by technologies like plant-based filters and magnetic powders, signify crucial steps toward preserving ocean health.

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