The issue of plastic pollution in the ocean has garnered significant attention in recent years, primarily due to its harmful effects on marine life. However, a new study co-authored by Northeastern researcher Aron Stubbins reveals an additional, and perhaps more insidious, consequence of microplastics in the ocean. According to the study, microplastics may be hindering the ocean’s ability to help offset the climate crisis by impeding the process of carbon sequestration.

The ocean has long been an integral part of the carbon sink process, whereby dead phytoplankton sink to the ocean floor, effectively removing carbon from the atmosphere. This process, akin to the way trees and plants on land absorb carbon, plays a crucial role in mitigating the effects of human-induced carbon dioxide emissions. However, Stubbins’ research indicates that microplastics are disrupting this vital process by altering the buoyancy of the phytoplankton, making it more difficult for them to sink to the depths of the ocean.

Microplastics, due to their buoyant nature, interfere with the formation of “marine snow,” which is the mechanism through which carbon is transported from the surface of the ocean to its depths. Stubbins explains that phytoplankton growing on microplastics in biofilms, instead of as free-living organisms, experience changes in buoyancy upon death. As a result, the marine snow produced is less efficient in sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, ultimately undermining the ocean’s capacity to store carbon.

In a study reported in Marine Chemistry, researchers conducted experiments to observe the sinking rate of phytoplankton with and without exposure to microplastics. The results revealed that phytoplankton entwined with microplastics sank at a significantly slower rate compared to their plastic-free counterparts, indicating a 20% reduction in sinking speed. This decrease in sinking rate poses a significant challenge at a time when carbon sequestration is of paramount importance in combating climate change.

Apart from hampering the sinking process of phytoplankton, microplastics also have secondary effects on nutrient availability in the ocean. When exposed to sunlight, microplastics dissolve and release organic carbon, which bacteria can utilize as food. However, the growth of bacteria also requires nitrogen and phosphorus, which they extract from phytoplankton, thereby impeding the ability of these vital organisms to capture carbon from the atmosphere. This interference further diminishes the efficiency of the biological carbon pump, exacerbating the challenges posed by plastic pollution in the ocean.

The pervasive presence of microplastics in the ocean poses a significant threat to global-scale processes such as the carbon cycle. The findings of the study underscore the urgent need to address plastic pollution and its detrimental impact on the ocean’s capacity to sequester carbon. While there is still much to learn about the precise effects of microplastics on the environment, it is clear that immediate action is necessary to mitigate the escalating threat they pose to marine ecosystems and the planet as a whole.

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