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Drones to Map Out Worldwide Plastic Pollution

Apr 23, 2015 03:32 PM EDT

(Photo : Flickr: kris krug)

It is well known that plastic pollution is riddling our oceans and threatening various marine life, so now scientists are using drones to map out this debris and better understand how to deal with the problem.

Race for the Water, a Swiss marine expedition, announced last week its plan to race around the globe in 2016, collecting and analyzing samples of plastic found on some of the world's most remote beaches. The craft will travel roughly 40,000 nautical miles and use drones flying overhead to determine just how much plastic is piling up.

While this vessel is certainly not the first to take to the seas to gather information about plastic pollution, it will hopefully provide the most accurate data. Past expeditions have mostly collected samples from the open ocean, which is often challenging and may result in inconsistent data due to changes in currents. By focusing on beaches instead, and using the drones to map changes over time, hopefully researchers can better determine what they're up against.

"We think what we find on the beach, we'll find in the water. And the good thing about the islands is that we can come back again and again and get a sense over time of how the problem is evolving," Servan-Schreiber, one of the researchers, told The Guardian.

In fact, it turns out that plastic pollution in the oceans is currently 10 times worse than previously thought, and will likely worsen over time.

Once they collect samples, the team will send them to a lab in Lausanne, Switzerland to determine which chemicals have accumulated in the plastic and at what levels. It is well known that plastic in the ocean attracts and accumulates chemicals over time; however, the process by which this occurs is still unclear. With this drone project, scientists may be better able to predict how toxic the world's oceans will be in the future. This is crucial for protecting birds, fish and other marine life, which are already feeling the effects of plastic pollution.

(Photo : Flickr: Kal Sender)

It is estimated that nearly 700 marine species are threatened by plastic debris, which they encounter on a daily basis. For example, seabirds are at risk due to ingestion of plastic, which they confuse for food, while plastic debris is also deadly to whales and dolphins.

Even more astonishing is the fact that marine species like those mentioned don't have to just worry about debris such as glass or plastic that they can see - they also have to watch out for what they can't see. Microplastics - microscopic particles of plastic debris - are also threatening the world's oceans.

They not only enter marine creatures' bodies by ingestion, by also via gills. This way, they take over six times longer to leave the body compared with standard digestion. This doesn't bode well for crustaceans like crabs, mollusks and fish, and even freshwater organisms.

What's more, humans may also be at risk due to plastic pollution. Over time, plastic on beaches could potentially leech not only the chemicals used to make the plastic in the first place, but also any additional chemicals accumulated in the ocean. Researchers have not previously found any health problems from short-term exposure related to ocean plastic, however it remains to be seen whether there are any issues due to long-term exposure.

Unfortunately, researchers have not come up with a solution for getting rid of the plastic they find - recycling it is inefficient and wasteful due to the amount of freshwater needed to clean off the salt.

But ultimately, the goal is to find viable solutions and put as many of them in place as possible.

"Because plastic never goes away, at some point, the beaches will be more plastic than sand," Servan-Schreiber concluded. "So it's better to realize that very early and try to mitigate the problem."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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