Microplastic Field Research from a Sea Kayak: Using the Collected Data on a Wider Scale

 In Stories from the field

Tia Westermann

This blog written by Tia Westermann, a Danish biotech student that would have been sailing on a Tall ship this summer. Unfortunately, due to the current situation all these trips were cancelled. That did not stop her going on the water. From a sea kayak Tia is collecting data from diverse areas to help to get a complete picture of the extent of pollution. This is the fourth blog about her adventures. Prevvious blogs you can read herehere and here.

Using the Collected Data on a Wider Scale

This week did not lend itself to kayaking: the weather was too inhospitable, and the wind did not die down as the weekend grew closer. The next week will mostly be spent on method development and process improvements to streamline all of the notes and practical experiences already gained from the days on the water. While landlocked for the past week, I have been considering how the data collected by sea kayakers aligns with data from other studies and ongoing citizen science projects, and how this ties in to gathering extensive and diverse data on microplastic pollution.

The Range of Citizen Science

All over the world, microplastic is a topic of scientific relevance. We know it’s a problem, and we want to do something about it – so why do we need more data on distribution and composition of microplastics in the marine environment?

Getting ready to test the trawl

Tracking microplastic pollution over time is crucial to continuing research, understanding how plastic affects wildlife and natural environments, and to developing solutions. Furthermore, gathering data from diverse areas is necessary to get a complete picture of the extent of pollution. Collecting extensive data can inspire future research and solutions, and empower policy change and advocacy.

While many different groups of people care about the environment and want to make a difference, the outdoor community represents a unique population which is already well-positioned to participate in field data collection and research through citizen science. Several large datasets using citizen science as its primary data collection method already exist, such as the Big Microplastic Survey and the Adventure Scientists’ Microplastic Initiatives.

Data Collection is One Part of the Puzzle

In the workshop

Collection of field samples and isolation of microplastics from them is only the first step towards using the data to affect change. After the plastic is collected by citizen scientists, it is available for analysis in laboratory conditions, and the data becomes part of the global knowledge on plastic pollution. Many datasets of varying sizes on marine plastic pollution exist around the world, and the data collected from this project contributes to the sum of those resources. These resources can then be used for large-scale studies, and can be expanded with further analysis of the original samples. These datasets, when combined, represent a powerful resource which can be used to affect change and develop solutions to the microplastic issue. However, differences in methodology and data analysis complicate this.

When combining data from different sources, issues with incompatible units and transferability of data come up. While there is no commonly recognised standard for marine microplastic research, there are some methods that microplastic studies tend to default towards. This is positive when it comes to the compatibility of the data, but does also run the risk of losing diversity of data. One such method is the trawl, where the most widely used is the Manta trawl. The design of the kayaking trawl is also based on the design of the Manta, but factors such as materials can impact the collected data. It is therefore in this project’s interest to be able to replicate the final trawl design, so that participating kayaking clubs can collect data using uniform methods, and the data as such can be more easily used for further research.

Over and out,

Tia W.

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