Bursting bubbles move microplastics from the ocean to the atmosphere

Written by
Colton Poore, Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment
Oct. 12, 2023

Using high-speed photography, researchers at Princeton and Cornell University have demonstrated that the ocean can transport microplastics into the atmosphere, adding to evidence that the sea may not be the final resting place for plastic pollution it is often thought to be.

In a paper published Oct. 3 in PNAS Nexus, the team of researchers showed that bubbles formed from breaking waves at the ocean’s surface can launch tiny bits of plastic — such as those that might come from broken-down plastic bottles, synthetic clothing fibers and cosmetic products — into the atmosphere after they burst. Combining their observations with global estimates of microplastic concentrations, the researchers projected that the ocean might be emitting around 100,000 metric tons of microplastics each year.

“These bursting bubbles have been shown to transport salt crystals and bacteria into the atmosphere, enough to influence cloud formation and global climate dynamics,” said Luc Deike, leader of the research team and associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the High Meadows Environmental Institute. “Now, we’ve shown that the same process is also capable of carrying microplastic particles out of the ocean and into the atmosphere.”

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