The accumulation and dispersion of plastics in the oceans has gone from being a preoccupation of only the most ardent and dedicated eco-warriors to become one of the leading environmental concerns, up there with climatic change, amongst the general population and the political classes. The somewhat sudden emergence of this issue in the collective consciousness has largely been brought about by heart-wrenching documentary photographs and footage diffused by the worldwide media of emblematic marine creatures entangled in, or choked by, plastic debris: sea turtles ensnared by discarded “six pack” holders, whales trapped in abandoned or lost fishing gear, albatross chicks starved by the ingestion of all manner of plastic rubbish.
Whether large objects or small fragments, plastics in the oceans and coasts are a hazard for marine life, a vehicle for the transportation of invasive species to remote parts of the world and, most certainly, an eyesore. However, it is minute pieces of plastic with dimensions smaller than a few millimetres, called microplastics, which could prove one of the most serious modern threats to the oceans. Microplastics are released in nature as a result of their use in cosmetic products and industrial scrubbers, the wearing and washing of synthetic textiles, the rubbing of tyres against tarmac and the weathering of paints. Microplastics are also the inevitable product of chemical and mechanical degradation or larger pieces of plastic already adrift in the environment. Microplastics are everywhere: in the air, the soil, the sea and the sediments. The amount of microplastics in the natural world is not known but, in the ocean alone, it is likely to be in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of tonnes. Microplastics are ingested by all animal forms in the sea, from baleen whales, through fish of all sizes, to microorganisms, such as zooplankton. Fish eaten by humans are now known to contain considerable amounts of microplastics. Little is known about how microplastics affect marine life and food webs, but there is a very high potential for serious impacts caused by disruptions in the functions and activities of the organisms, the accumulation and transfer of microplastics up the food chain, and the toxicity and persistence of some of the substances contained in, or carried by, plastics.
Prompted by the urgency of the problems created by microplastics in the ocean, we are pleased to announce that the Journal of Ocean and Climate: Science, Technology and Impacts has launched a “Special Collection on Microplastics and their Impacts on Marine Organisms and Ecosystems”, edited by Dr. Alexis M. Janosik, University of West Florida. This has the aim of providing a venue for active researchers in academia, the public sector and industry to present their most recent results in the field, as well as serving as a forum to discuss open questions, future research paths and possible technical and societal solutions to the problem of marine plastics.
Dr. Alexis M. Janosik is an Assistant Professor at the University of West Florida. Her work focuses on using molecular tools to answer ecological and evolutionary questions and she is particularly interested in molecular impacts of microplastics on marine organisms.
Dr. Miguel Angel Morales Maqueda is a physical oceanographer with twenty five years of experience in ocean observations and modelling. He has studied, amongst other topics, the evolution of sea ice in the Arctic and the Southern Ocean, the stability of the global ocean overturning circulation and the response of sea level to natural variability. He has participated in nineteen oceanographic expeditions to the North Atlantic, the Southern Ocean and the Tropical Pacific and also works on the development of robotic instrumentations for the observation of the ocean in remote regions.